Eleven positions make up the standard cricket team. Each possesses its own unique aspects, be they geographical, technical or skill related. Each possesses certain nuances which the incumbent must be cognisant of in order to perform proficiently. Each will require a modicum of adaptability and metamorphosis, changing roles depending on the ebb and flow of a match.
Nevertheless, the average cricket team can be divided into two distinct sections: bowlers and batters. Players in both sections regularly move from one position to another, be it as a result of circumstance or tactics. Players can no longer afford to be one dimensional, particularly in the limited overs variants, as adaptability and possessing more than a single string to one’s bow is all but de rigueur.
Improving one’s fielding to an exceptional standard is all but expected. Thus, players move up and down the batting order according to what they can offer in each discipline, the match situation and / or the vagaries of the pitch. Players could be opening one match before dropping to the middle order the next and then finding themselves asked to fulfil the role as an innings finisher.
Similarly, bowlers with an aptitude with the bat may find themselves bunted up the order to score quick runs or target a particular member of the opposition attack. Adaptability is the name of the game in the modern homogenous cricket world.
One position arguably bucks the trend. One position has retained and maintained a sense of anomalous isolation; an exception, a footnote and a caveat to the modern chameleonic philosophy. Because the wicket-keeper is still very much a position that is against the grain, something of a mystery, a perverse choice in contrast to the glory positions, a perplexing mix of bravura, bravery and bonkers. In the most harmless of references, the black sheep of the cricket family.
It takes an exceptional individual to fulfil the last line of defence particularly as wicket-keepers are at a disadvantage due to there being only one position in the starting eleven. Batters and bowlers can move around their respective sections of the line-up, but if one happens to be part of a squad with an exceptional wicket-keeping custodian, it can be a long, patient existence.
Wicket-keepers used to enjoy a unique position in a cricket line-up and, one could argue, that there was a craft to their role. The position was a deliberate choice, requiring different characteristics than other members of the team. Great concentration was, and still is, required; no grazing in the outfield or dozing at mid-off.
Hence, in a number of instances, the position has attracted some of the game’s more interesting characters, perhaps akin to a goalkeeper in football or the drummer in a band. Thus, favourites such as Alan Knott, Jack Russell and Paul Nixon are, in some respects, remembered for the eccentricities that pockmarked their time as glovemen.
All was soon to change though. The advent of Adam Gilchrist and the wicket-keeper-batsman led to teams scuttling around to find a gloveman who could emulate the Australian and offer some late order humpty as well as keeping wicket. The traditional role undertook an evolution. Indeed, the role has morphed so far that one could argue it is more a case of batsman-wicket-keeper as opposed to vice versa; the emphasis on scoring runs deemed ever more important than quality work behind the timbers.
In some respects, modern day wicket-keeping is akin to modern day caddying in golf; the role is so much more than simply carrying a bag of clubs or catch the ball, edged or not. Wicket-keepers, like the average looper, are now required to provide psychological support in the form of cajoling and encouragement.
The problem with the role is that it is not instantly quantifiable. In an age dominated by statistics and analysis how does one assess the impact of the individual donning the gauntlets and the cut-off pads? Sure, his / her name appears in the scorebook but catches and the occasional stumping aren’t easy standards upon which to judge and they certainly aren’t as sexy as clouting a few sixes.
Cricket as a sport evolves though and maybe there is an opportunity for wicket-keeping to redress the balance a little. As T20 cricket further influences all formats of the sport with ever more aggressive styles of batting, so the import of taking wickets grows exponentially. Trundling through 10 overs for forty-odd runs for no wickets no longer cuts the mustard as batsmen comfortably settle before attacking with gusto during the final overs. Thus, with wicket-taking becoming ever more crucial, so one can conclude that taking opportunities becomes equally as crucial.
Cricket’s pursuit for the next Adam Gilchrist sacrificed quality wicket-keeping in favour of quick runs; a dropped catch or a missed stumping a fair trade for what the inferior keeper would contribute with the bat. Nevertheless, the currency of dropped catches has appreciated in recent times courtesy of the ultra aggressive styles of batting now utilised.
Ergo, is the aforementioned trade still as equitable? Can a balance be maintained in the run scoring department if a wicket-keeper misses an opportunity to dismiss Virat Kohli, Steve Smith, Kane Williamson or Joe Root for instance? Is there a meaningful way of quantifying a missed opportunity?
The churlish would simply subtract a batsman’s final total from that at which they were dropped but sport is rarely that simple and the whole tapestry of a contest is changed irrevocably by a shelled catch or a missed stumping.
Unlike bowlers and batsmen, there are no clear parameters for wicket-keepers. Rather, they are now judged on how many runs they score; judged on different standards to what they are employed. Maybe the new currency is just that though: fiduciary. Drop Virat Kohli in the IPL final and the cost could be a few million quid or a fistful of crore rather than simply the loss of the match. Cricket as a sport is heading in a direction where success and defeat are seemingly gauged by how much money is won or lost rather than runs, wickets and trophies.
Even under the new standards the beleaguered wicket-keeper still receives rum treatment though. There’s seems to be forever a role that loses a contest rather than wins the day. Taking a stunning catch or completing a dextrous stumping is deemed to have contributed to victory rather than proving the moment critique in deciding the result.
Play a match winning innings or complete a clinical spell of bowling and one is afforded more definitive praise. There’s seems to be a role forever judged in negative terms only; ‘you only notice a wicket-keeper when they make a mistake’ after all.
However, in an age where success is rapidly defined by the colour of money rather than statistics in a book, perhaps the traditional wicket-keeper may once again forge a niche in the team. Dropping the opposition’s star player can now be clearly quantified, even if such judgement has evolved in line with the position itself.