What does a wicket keeper do in a cricket game?
Nothing helps the balance of a cricket team more than the presence of a player who has mastered more than one discipline. The term “all-rounder” is habitually applied to someone who can bat and bowl, but over the years there have been other key performers worthy of the description, particularly the wicket-keeper who, in addition to being busier in the field than anyone else, has more chance of helping to dismiss a batsman than any of his team mates. His batting, once considered merely useful, is now essential if he is to command a regular Test place.
Consider the current keepers in world cricket. Almost all of them are good enough batsmen to come in at number seven, while Adam Gilchrist and Kumar Sangakkara might well get into their national teams even if they couldn’t keep wicket. Of recent, retired incumbents, Andy Flower regularly went in higher for Zimbabwe, while Alec Stewart began his record-breaking Test career as an opening batsman, and occupied every position between one and seven. He often won the vote ahead of his great rival, Gloucestershire’s Jack Russell, because of his superior batting, even though Russell, a wonderfully agile keeper, was a good enough batsman to score two Test centuries.
The debate about whether it is better to play a wicket-keeper/batsman, a batsman/wicket-keeper, or the best “pure” wicket-keeper, regardless of his batting, is one that has raged down the years. In 1976 there was an outcry amongst the wicket-keeping fraternity when Roger Tolchard was chosen as Alan Knott’s deputy for the tour of India rather than Bob Taylor, then widely regarded as the best gloveman in England. In the event Tolchard played his four Tests on that tour, solely as a batsman, while Taylor eventually flourished at international level after Knott joined Kerry Packer in 1977. There was a similar occurrence 20 years earlier, when Brian Taylor of Essex deputised for Godfrey Evans ahead of the inestimable Keith Andrew, but did not play in the Tests.
Perhaps more than any other country, England has been fortunate in producing successive wicket-keepers who could bat, or vice-versa. Stewart was probably more in the latter mould, like Les Ames, who along with Evans and Knott formed Kent’s great wicket-keeping triumvirate of the 20th century. Opinions on who was best of those three inevitably vary according to the generations. Evans commanded massive support among his contemporaries, while Knott, a brilliant wicket-keeper and impishly aggressive batsman in a crisis ( of which he had to confront plenty), was without peer in his time or since.
The primary role of the wicket-keeper has evolved along with cricket itself. As a general rule Knott preferred standing back to medium pace, believing that catches missed would outnumber stumpings taken standing up. The policy contrasted with some of his predecessors. Evans, for example, was renowned for standing up to Alec Bedser, and for executing several stumping chances as a result. In fact, the overall proportion of stumpings taken by Evans is much higher -46 out of 219 dismissals, while Knott took 19 out of 269. This also reflects a greater preponderance of faster bowling in the game today; of Stewart’s 241 victims, just 14 were stumped. For Stewart and other modern keepers, the preference is for standing up to medium pace, particularly in one-day cricket, to inhibit the batsman’s freedom to leave his ground.
To dive or not to dive? Another question that has exercised the minds of keepers down the years. Between the wars, when great catchers like Woolley and Hammond stood in the slips, for a keeper to dive in front of one of them might have been considered an affront, and in any event many keepers preferred to rely on rapid footwork. The modern creed is that if he instinctively feels he has a good chance of taking a catch he should go for it. One of the great action cricket photographs is of the Australian Rod Marsh, diving far to his right to poach what would have been a straightforward slip catch to Ian Chappell, dismissing Tony Greig off Gary Gilmour at Headingley in the 1975 World Cup. Politeness prevents speculation on what the Australian captain might have said to Marsh had the chance been missed.
However spectacular such catches may be, it is broadly agreed that the most challenging part of the keeper’s job is standing up to spin, especially on a turning wicket, when the batsman’s body can obscure the keeper’s view of the ball. The former Glamorgan and England allrounder Peter Walker tells how the young Knott went against his advice to stand back to the off-spinner Don Shepherd, after a shower of rain had livened up the pitch at Fenners in 1964. Shepherd decided to put the impudent teenager in his place, bowling a ball that turned, lifted and sharply deflected off the inside edge. Knott caught the rising ball far to his left at shoulder height, before removing the leg bail as the batsman fell forward off balance.
Knott broke Evans’s world record for wicket-keeping dismissals in Tests, and sent champagne to Marsh when the Australian passed him in 1981. He was later overtaken by his successor, Ian Healy, who pouched an amazing 395 victims. It is a distinguished list, although like many others it reflects the greater amount of cricket played in the modern era. The South African Mark Boucher rose to third position before temporarily losing his Test place in 2004. After Boucher comes Gilchrist, followed by Jeff Dujon, the Jamaican who played when the West Indies were flattening all before them in the 1980s. Dujon was another genuine all-rounder, a joy to watch with the bat.
Other great keepers of the modern era include Wasim Bari, who missed virtually nothing for Pakistan in the 1970s, while Farokh Engineer was an asset for India. Further back, Wally Grout of Australia had a remarkable record of 187 victims from just 51 Tests. And no one can have been more appropriately nicknamed than another Australian, “The Claw”: Don Tallon. Amongst the earliest to master the art was John Blackham, also of Australia, who became a legend of cricket’s golden age, while Dick Lilley and Tiger Smith were famous successive England keepers of the same era.
The author of the Complete Book of Cricket, AE Knight, once wrote: “I should like to see the wicket-keeper more handsomely rewarded than he is, and I would infringe upon the delightful social communism of our fees to the extent of awarding him an extra sovereign in every match.” He had a point, and who of the aforementioned distinguished band of cricketers could possibly disagree?