To keep or not is the issue

Cricket

To keep or not is  the issue

The hallmark of a good wicket-keeper, they used to say, is to go through a day’s play largely unnoticed. Since Adam Gilchrist’s blazing entry into the international arena, that theory has gone out of the window, because today, it’s what he does in front of the stumps that’s as much under the spotlight as what he does behind it.

The Australian maverick redefined the role of the wicket-keeper, setting the benchmark that other teams, and individuals, have striven since to emulate. From being an accomplished stumper who could chip in with useful runs, the glovesman these days is expected to be a genuine all-rounder, someone who can hold his own as a batsman and be competent and efficient, if not outstanding, behind the sticks.

Gilchrist was unique in many ways and should not be the yardstick against which subsequent wicketkeeper-batsmen must be judged. He batted at number seven in Test cricket behind a powerful, muscling batting line-up, and had the freedom to go out and express himself. His natural attacking game was ideally suited to the one-day format where, at the top of the order, he set the tone with one destructive innings after another.

Of the three current giants in the Gilchrist mould – Kumar Sangakkara, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Brendon McCullum – it’s the Kiwi alone who has the same license as his Australian counterpart, though by no stretch of the imagination have New Zealand, during McCullum’s career, possessed a line-up half as destructive as Australia did during the Gilchrist era.

McCullum’s recent decision to hand over the wicket-keeping gloves and focus on solely being a specialist Test batsman in a bid to prolong his international career must not come as a real surprise, nor is it without precedent. Since his international debut in 2002, the 28-year-old has barely missed a match, turning up day after day with complete commitment and putting in more than competent performances. The pressure had to tell, at some stage, even though he has already abdicated wicket-keeping duties in 50-over international cricket.

Sangakkara and Dhoni, of course, know all about pressure. Both men aren’t just wicket-keepers and key batsmen, they are also the skippers of their respective countries and therefore have to divide their energies between their disciplines and also towards thinking for others.

McCullum’s recent decision, coupled with Sangakkara’s not too recent move to relinquish wicket-keeping duties in Test cricket, brings us to the big question. Could we be slowly returning to the days of the specialist stumper?

The Sri Lankan captain keeps wickets these days only in limited-overs cricket, his imposing presence at number three making it practically impossible for him to don the big gloves in the longer version. An initial experiment as only specialist batsman didn’t exactly pay off, but over the last two years, the classy left-hander has thrived as a specialist number three, fresh when he comes out to bat even if he has spent a day and a half as a fielder simply because he hasn’t had to crouch and rise for 540 deliveries behind the stumps each day, seldom getting the chance to switch off even between deliveries because his mind is racing with strategies, field placements et al.

Multi-faceted cricketers

The condensed nature of the one-day format and the need for versatile, multi-faceted cricketers means Sangakkara is quite happy to keep wickets in the 50-over game while, again, more than holding his own at number three.

Sangakkara has experienced pressure, but nothing of the sort that Dhoni carries on his broad shoulders. The expectations of a billion people, and the obvious and desperate need to keep turning up and delivering game after game can exact a heavy price on any individual. When, apart from being the captain, you are one of the key cogs in the batting machine and also don the garb of the man behind the stumps, it makes huge demands on fortitude, endurance, powers of concentration and temperament.

Thus far, Dhoni has handled these demands with characteristic phlegmatism, though he has seldom gone into a game in recent times not carrying aches and niggles. His back has acted up from time to time, forcing him to miss the odd Test match; his fingers are a mess, the middle finger of his right hand in particular repeatedly battered by the cricket ball despite the protection high-quality gloves offer these days.

Perhaps, not too long into the future, Dhoni will also be forced to consider giving up wicket-keeping duties if he desires to play on for a few more years. Given the rate at which things are going, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for the Jharkhandi to at once be ’keeper, premier batsman and the captain of the team. He has shown in the past that he has what it takes to succeed as a batsman at the highest level, not necessarily orthodox and graceful but equipped enough to make runs in his own inimitable manner.

Dhoni’s cause in these days of heavy schedules isn’t helped by the fact that he wears the same hat for his IPL franchise, the Chennai Super Kings, as he does for India. With the pressures of the IPL and the imminent Champions League to boot, the question of having to balance his own workload becomes paramount.

That Dhoni hasn’t felt the need to take a break from the game post 2008 – he is the only one of India’s ‘core group’ that has soldiered on consistently in that period – would suggest that for now, he is at ease multi-tasking. For how long, is the million dollar question.

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