Mahendra Singh Dhoni is probably the most scrutinised player in cricket and all of the spotlight on him is not bright. Yet, no one can take away from the Ranchi man his bragging rights in the shorter forms of the game as he leads India into the World Cup.
His permanence in the side, as captain for a better part, announced the definitive arrival of the era of wicket-keeper-batsman in the Indian scheme of things, so much so that keeping per se was covertly put on the back burner.
Blame it on the burgeoning clout of T20s or call it the need of the hour, given that 300-plus run chases do not exactly make sides nervous these days, a 'keeper-batsman is increasingly becoming more of a batsman who can keep.
Toss the query to RK Sharma - the man best known as the one who gave us Virat Kohli - and the former Delhi off-spinner concurs, albeit giving off vibes of half-dejection and half-surrender. "Well, that's how it is these days," he shrugs.
"Teams now view a wicketkeeper as an all-rounder. The presence of a keeper who can bat well allows sides to include an extra bowler.
Young wicket-keepers at capital's West Delhi Cricket Academy (Arun Sharma/HT Photo)
How do his wards then take to keeping, presumed to be the most thankless job in cricket?
"I don't think keeping is a thankless job. I'd say it is job that demands enormous focus and physical and mental strength. It's a position that comes naturally. Lot of children don't readily take to keeping. If I see a kid who is very good at slips, or has sharp reflexes, I may try keeping with him. But children these days are very calculated. They know there's just one slot in the side (for a keeper)," he says.In the nets, 12-year old Kartiky Negi is crouched to collect the offerings of an off-spinner. Negi, a student of Vishal Bharti Public School, Paschim Vihar, represents his side in the U-12, U-14, and U-15 categories, and is a top-order batsman. Asked if he preferred keeping to batting, he replies with a diplomatic "fifty-fifty".
Among the more accomplished keepers of his age in the academy, Negi spends equal hours honing his batting and keeping skills. "We train for four to five hours daily. The keeping and batting drills are mixed, so that training doesn't get monotonous. By the end of the day, Sir ensures I've spent equal time behind and in front of the stumps. I keep on matting wickets as well as on regular tracks, and I stand up even to medium pacers," he says.
"I think keeping has had a positive impact on my batting as well," Negi, who started off as a spinner but 'chucked' it mid-way owing to a dodgy action, adds.
Kartiky Negi goes through paces at the West Delhi Cricket Academy (Arun Sharma/HT Photo)
Eleven-year old Sahej Dhawan, a student of Class 6 in Bhatnagar International School, Paschim Vihar, is another budding 'keeper-batsman. "My priority is keeping. It helps me concentrate better. Also, it makes my limbs stronger, which can make me a better batsman," says Dhawan, who looks up to Dhoni for inspiration.
Like Dhawan, Virajveer Singh from GD Goenka School, Vasant Kunj, and Adoksh Taneja from Ryan International School, Rohini, idolise India's erstwhile Test captain.
Unlike Singh, who enjoys his keeping more than his batting, Taneja finds batting more interesting.
Bhavya Dhawan, another Class 6 student from Bhatnagar International School, puts the demands of a 'keeper-batsman in perspective. "It is very difficult to manage keeping and batting. It's physically very tiring. So if we play a 20-over match, I and Kartiky divide responsibilities, since both of us also bat in the top-order," says the Adam Gilchrist-fan.
There are, however, no such worries for 14-year old Ishan Kaushik. The Class 8 student of Ambience Public School, Safdarjung Enclave, who is also a top-order batsman, says, "It is tiring but you get used to it with practice. I pay equal attention to my batting and keeping, maybe a bit more on batting because that way you have a better chance of being promoted in the order."
"I am constantly aware of the fact that there's just one wicket-keeping slot, so that adds to the pressure. If I drop a catch or miss a stumping, the pressure gets intense," Kaushik, who trains at the Madan Lal Cricket Academy, explains.
Dhoni's sudden retirement from Tests saddened Kaushik. "I think he could have played for a few more years. Some people say his technique behind the stumps was not great, but I look up to him as a keeper. However, I haven't told my coach that I admire Dhoni," he says with a sheepish grin.
Tucked in a quaint little corner of the lush green facility at the Madan Lal Cricket Academy, was the endearing sight of a young Jabjeer Singh, crouched behind a makeshift stump. All of 9 years, Singh already hopes of becoming the next Dhoni.
"I was always interested in keeping. Even before joining the academy, I used to keep wickets in school. When I came here, even the coaches asked me to keep. They also tell me that it is equally important for keepers to bat well. I like Dhoni, and I want to be like him," says Singh, a Class 4 student of Delhi Public School, RK Puram.
Meanwhile, the man who accounted for Viv Richards in the final of the 1983 World Cup, was updating a young woman about the progress of her child. "I don't coach for money. I coach for the satisfaction of seeing these kids do well," he is overheard.
Madan Lal does not take the allusion of wicket-keeping being a thankless profession very kindly. "I don't think keeping wickets is a thankless job. Never. No job in cricket is thankless. It is a specialised job. That said, we don't push kids into keeping or anything; we ensure they develop into complete cricketers."
The former India coach adds, "Wicket-keepers should be able to score crucial 60-70 runs. That lends balance to the side. For example, a good keeper-batsman allows you the flexibility to play an extra bowler. A keeper who bats at number 11 is of no use."
Sanjay Bhaskar, 17, of Delhi Cricket Club agrees. "I think Dhoni has set a wonderful benchmark for all upcoming keepers like us. There is the obvious pressure to hold on to that one slot, but it adds to team's balance."
"Ultimately, it all comes down to willingness," says Madan Lal, who shared the dressing room with Syed Kirmani, one of India's finest keepers.
"The phenomenon of wicketkeeper-batsmen was always there. We had (Farokh) Engineer, Kirmani, Kiran More. They were all very capable with the bat. We were all willing to go the extra mile for India," he adds.