x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Terms of the role have stuck for wicketkeepers

Despite significant changes in batting and bowling over the years, one job on the cricket pitch has barely evolved at all.

South Africa's AB de Villiers is, according to our columnist, a confused-wicketkeeper. Reuters
South Africa's AB de Villiers is, according to our columnist, a confused-wicketkeeper. Reuters

All sport and sporting skill is evolving. That is natural. If you watch cricket from the 1970s or 1980s now, the expansion in skills and in basic athleticism is clear. Batsmen have become more powerful. Their range of shot has ballooned and they have improved running skills.

Even bowlers, emasculated as they are, have developed ways to cope and thrive. The fast men have reverse swing and an array of slower balls; spinners have doosras, carrom balls and strange, staccato actions.

The biggest transformation has been in the field. There were always good fielders around, but before Jonty Rhodes of South Africa, the majority were stationary obstacles to batsmen, to be dodged like traffic cones. After Rhodes, they became predators.

As with tennis and football, better bodies, better equipment, better training and money have made cricket look a different sport to what it was. But something struck me recently in watching a Rodney Marsh catch in the 1975 World Cup semi-final against England. It is an astonishing take.

Gary Gilmour (the left-armer, on his way to six for 14) was swinging the ball viciously late in to right-handed batsmen. As he bowled to Tony Greig, Marsh anticipated quote late while dipping and took a step to his left. Then, realising the ball was wide outside off and swinging wider, he had to adjust. A quick foot shuffle and then time for no more steps.

Greig lashed his attempted drive, so the edge flew. Marsh took off from his right leg, became horizontal (as horizontal as the seminal Rhodes run-out of Inzamam-ul-Haq 17 years later), three feet off the ground, and took the catch one handed. It would have gone to Ian Chappell's right hand at wide first slip, an indication of just how far Marsh flew.

It is a special catch, but a Marsh special, one that he equalled, sometimes bettered, throughout his career. Neither was he the only one doing so. Jeff Dujon, Wasim Bari, Bob Taylor, Syed Kirmani, Alan Knott, all counterparts through Marsh's career, were as capable.

That was wicketkeeping's golden age. (Why has there not been greater celebration or documentation, by the way, of that period and those men?)

But here's the thing. That age might as well be timeless in the sense that not only did it feel ahead of its own time, but it is still ahead of our time right now. Instinctively, you might say they are catches that would not look out of place today but actually they do. They still look like catches from the future, of a time when men have stretched the limits of their own elasticity.

Wicketkeeping is as complex to do as it is to assess. It is instinctive yet also built on a million preprogrammed minuscule tics and twitches and movements. Form is, as much as than any other cricket skill if not more, simply a feeling, of how the ball is hitting gloves. The legs are important because not only does the entire lower base have to be supple, it has to be strong. Then the fingers, and it goes on really.

The gloves are lighter now, the pads less obstructive. Helmets are part of the kit. But to a non-technical eye at least, wicketkeeping does not look much more evolved than what it used to be; that, in fact, wicketkeeping alone out of all cricket's skills seems to have stagnated, which in a changing game, is as good as regression.

Limited overs cricket has brought a kind of quantum leap for batting, bowling and fielding but where is wicketkeeping's quantum leap?

The biggest advancement actually seems to have been a dilution of the specialist skill. Nobody is just a wicketkeeper anymore. They are batsmen who can keep, or wicketkeeper-batsmen, or wicketkeeper-captains, or single-format specialist wicketkeeper-batsmen.

That South Africa are in with AB de Villiers is indicative of the modern muddle.

Gary Kirsten is a fine coach but his attempts to explain De Villiers position recently was as straight as a bureaucrat breaking bad news: "In terms of our situation with AB, it's more exploratory. We are going through a phase of exploring and understanding his keeping." It is not just Kirsten, because De Villiers' own U-turning thoughts have created a new, unique hyphen: the confused-wicketkeeper.

The result of this dilution is becoming clearer though. More than ever before wicketkeepers are dispensable. Anyone can keep, and some countries have applied that literally. Since last year I have counted at least 20 different international wicketkeepers across the nine full Test members and three formats.

Some have kept in just T20s. Some have done ODIs and Tests. Some have done, bizarrely, Tests and T20s. Some are Tests only. Only India and Bangladesh have stuck to one man across the formats and that is because they are also captains.

This abundance, and unordered infiltration across formats, has ended up nudging them towards anonymity, not commented on and unnoticed (for no prize, try naming 20). In the process is being swept aside the basic genius of wicketkeeping, seen so purely and magnificently in that Marsh catch.


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