In many ways the evolution of a wicket-keeping batsman, especially one who opens the batting, goes back to the 1996 World Cup.
Kalu, the pioneer
The Sri Lankan team management decided that they needed to go hammer and tongs in the first 15 overs, so they pushed their free-hitting wicket-keeper Romesh Kaluwitharana up the order. The move worked and how!
Soon, most teams started realizing that an all-rounder needn’t be a guy who bats and bowls; the bloke behind the wicket could also fill the slot if he was good with the bat. The early 1990s had seen the great all-rounders of the game — Imran, Kapil, Hadlee and Botham — hang up their boots. The quest to fill their size 20 shoes was on, and soon teams realized that a keeper-batsman also could bring similar balance to the side.
I read the wicket
The only concern at the time was whether the physical demands of keeping for 50 overs and then opening the batting could be met. I don’t think I had to work harder than any of my mates and in fact I often did better with the bat after keeping for 50 overs. I am not big on statistics, but I reckon my first two or three centuries came batting second. Perhaps, the time I spent keeping helped me assess the wicket and get my eye in. By the time I came in to bat I knew how the wicket would behave and was accustomed to the nature and bounce of the wicket.
Within a couple of years almost all teams had a wicket-keeping batsman and some of these guys were and are exceptional.
The keeper-batsman role is here to stay across all formats of the game. It’s now a trend that will continue for sometime. IPL has thrown up a host of young keeper-batsmen. While Australia have Tim Paine waiting in the wings behind Brad Haddin, AB DeVilliers has taken over from Mark Boucher and even England, the only team that did not have a keeper-batsman consistently, are trying to mould Matt Prior into that role.
Sanga & Dhoni
Kumar Sangakkara has been an outstanding example of this with his immaculate keeping and quality batsmanship. He has to keep to spinners of the calibre of Muthiah Muralitharan and that really requires a consistent standard. He has also batted either at the top or at number three with great distinction.
MS Dhoni started off his career as a top order batsman and was explosive. He has now moved himself to the lower middle order, but can change gears remarkably well according to the situation.
Both Kumar and MS have also proved that captaincy does not necessarily burden the keeper-batsman as both have handled all three roles really well. I don’t follow statistics but I reckon both are doing well with the bat even though they keep and captain.
Captaincy has more to do with the kind of person you are rather than what your role in the team is. I have no regrets at not captaining Australia as I played under exceptional leaders. I am, however, glad that the myth that leadership burdens the keeper-batsman has exploded.
Looking ahead to the World Cup, I would be watching Sangakkara and Dhoni to see how they handle the pressure of being host captains as well as keeper-batsmen. I am also interested in seeing how Brendon McCullum fares because he can be truly explosive at the top of the order. Prior is the other guy I would be watching out for because he has to bring his Test form into one-dayers to succeed in this role.
Squash ball & such
Like all other players I am sure these guys must be gearing up for the World Cup. It gives me special pride that I have been part of three World Cup winning campaigns. I have many special memories of the tournaments, from my indifferent form to top-scoring in the finals in 1999. In 2003, my walking in a semifinal was the hot topic, though I myself did not think too much of it.
The last World Cup was also special because I knew it would be my last. I remember not being too happy about my batting. Our fitness coach suggested I could work on my grip by putting a squash ball inside my glove. I felt it did loosen my grip and went with it right through the tournament. I did not score that many right through that edition and watched Matthew Hayden smashing them around at the other end.
It was only in the final that I really got going. I enjoyed that innings and was happy to contribute to the side’s third straight win. A lot was written about the squash ball subsequent to that century, but the joy of getting my hands around that trophy was what mattered.