Bye bye specialist wicket-keepers, hello wicket-keeper all-rounders
- Apart from being expected to win games with the bat, they need to advise bowlers and are often the last word for reviews.
Double hundred on Test debut at Lord’s, denying India a first-innings lead with a fifty—the only half-century from both sides in the first two innings—at the World Test Championship final on a treacherous Southampton pitch and now keeping wickets for New Zealand at the T20 World Cup, it has been a hugely satisfying season for Devon Conway so far.
Wicket-keeping, be it for 20 overs, 50 overs or five days, isn’t a skill that can be acquired overnight. But the constant need to adhere to changing requirement and strategy—especially in the shortest format—has prompted teams to adapt at short notice. So when Sourav Ganguly wanted to free up a slot for an extra batter in the eleven before the 2003 World Cup, Rahul Dravid was asked to wear the big gloves despite not having tried them on since school. This the norm now. Specialist wicket-keepers are no longer in vogue.
They now open the batting, help set fields, run down to the bowlers for some last-minute advice and are often the first and last word during those tricky 15-second windows to ask for video reviews. But more than anything else, they have to score. “You need to have wicket-keeping all-rounders,” says former India wicketkeeper and national selector Kiran More. “Be it T20, one-day or Test cricket, if you have someone who opens the batting or bats at No 7, he has to score runs. He can’t be playing just as a wicket-keeper. The concept has changed and if you look around you will find the likes of Jos Buttler (England), Quinton de Kock (South Africa) and Mohammad Rizwan (Pakistan). Rishabh Pant, for example, is a player who can destroy. A captain needs players like that.”
Two of the three top scorers in this T20 World Cup are wicket-keeper all-rounders: Rizwan and Buttler. Both like to bat long and big. And both take time to get off the blocks. The match where Buttler scored a century against Sri Lanka (101 off 67 balls) also saw him get to his slowest fifty (off 45 balls). Rizwan has a similar philosophy in T20, hitting his range mostly in the death overs. But what you see now took years of pushing, prodding and some degree of compromise as well. Buttler has had to deal with major technical issues during keeping. Despite being in the mix since 2015, Rizwan finally got to open in 2021 when Babar Azam broke his thumb. He has not batted elsewhere since, averaging 80.61 in 21 innings. Not getting bogged by the duality of the role helps. “You have to keep a mindset that you’re a pure batsman and not a wicketkeeper. If you think your job will be done by just scoring 30-odd runs and then keep, it will not happen anymore,” Parthiv Patel had said in 2019.
Need to do both jobs well
It’s not an easy philosophy to live by in every format though. In a column for the Daily Mail last year, former England captain Nasser Hussain wrote: “The problem for today’s keeper-batsman is that he has to do both jobs well. It’s not the same for an all-rounder such as Ben Stokes, who can go through a lean spell taking wickets if he is scoring plenty of runs.” The pressure behind the wickets notwithstanding, expectations automatically multiply once the world gets to know these all-rounders have match-altering batting capability. “I’ve had that asked of me a lot—why don’t you play the same way (in Tests)?” Buttler says in a recent interview to The Times. “And I’ll be honest I don’t think it’s possible. The value of your wicket is different, isn’t it? The ball moves, there’s slips in place, it’s generally a lot harder. Certainly, at times I could be more aggressive, play a few more shots, but clearing the front leg and just slogging is probably not quite the one for Test cricket. Anyone who has been successful in my eyes in Test cricket has a good defence and can leave the ball well. You need that part of your game.”
It’s a rare admission of the balancing act that Buttler, Pant, Rizwan and de Kock need to get right. Shorter formats demand and approve a certain degree of brazenness but it becomes a frivolity in Tests after a few paltry returns. Curbing natural instinct doesn’t come naturally. Case in point is Pant whose IPL strike rates were 128.52 in 2021 and 113.95 in 2020 with a total of just 19 sixes. In comparison, he hit 27 sixes in 2019 alone (488 runs at an SR of 162.66) and 37 sixes in 2018 (684 runs at an SR of 173.6), his best season till date.
Pant’s struggle to play anchor—a role he isn’t naturally adept at—has looked more acute this season after becoming Delhi Capitals captain in the absence of Shreyas Iyer who was ruled out of the first leg in India due to injury. The pressure on Pant is considerably higher than any other previous Indian wicketkeeper purely because he can change the complexion of any match in a few overs.
With every country trying to find the next Adam Gilchrist and MS Dhoni rolled into one, the bar has been set impossibly high to begin with. Both were great in different parameters though. Gilchrist wasn’t just brute force or clean hitting in every format but also about clever batting—using a squash ball inside his bottom hand glove to hit a match-winning 149 off 104 in the 2007 World Cup final being an apt example. Often defensive in chases—trying to take them into the final overs—Dhoni was more liberal about wicket-keeping—cutting reaction time by collecting the ball beside the stumps being one of his innovations. It’s a difficult act to follow up. In November 2019, Pant had conceded a no-ball trying to stump Liton Das because he had collected the ball in front of the stumps. And for all his aggression in white-ball cricket, Buttler has already expressed his intention of bringing it down a notch in Tests to become a more consistent scorer. This caution stems from a tweaked selection policy that has seen Pant, Buttler, Rizwan, Conway, de Kock and Matthew Wade making Test debuts only after playing shorter formats. Once you do that, wicket-keeping as a specialist skill is bound to be secondary to scoring runs.