Is it the End of the Golden Age of the Wicket Keeper Batsman?

Kumar Sangakkara, one of the greatest cricketers to have ever played for Sri Lanka, retired from international cricket at the end of the second test of the current India-Sri Lanka series. His retirement leaves a void in the Sri Lankan team that will be difficult for them to fill. But interestingly enough, the retirement of Sangakkara may have also marked an end to a golden age for wicket-keeper batsmen.

From the time a bunch of English aristocrats thought hammering around a ball with a piece of club would be a great idea and called the game cricket for some mysterious reason, the role of wicketkeeper has been pretty well defined. He has one of the most specialized and conspicuous roles on the cricket field. His job is to ensure the deliveries missed by the batsmen are collected cleanly, edges and nicks in his zone are taken, stumpings and runouts at the batting end are effected and no byes are conceded at that end. He also very often acts as the cheerleader of the team, shouting out words of encouragement to the bowlers and fielders and distracting the batsman with constant chattering. His position behind the wicket also offers him a vantage point from where he can judge the true nature of the pitch and the tactics of the batsmen and can accordingly brief his captain or team about them.

The batting skills of a wicketkeeper were often considered a mere afterthought. This is because wicket keeping is an extremely specialized job, a job that requires maintaining hours of physical stamina and mental discipline along with strong reflexes, a deft pair of hands and nifty footwork. And it is an important role, for a disproportionate number of dismissals in a cricketing field involve a wicketkeeper. A wicketkeeper who cannot collect the ball cleanly lowers the morale of his bowlers and is a liability that most cricketing teams can ill afford.

A wicketkeeper over the ages typically came out to bat in the lower order. A number 7 was considered a pretty high position for him while a number of keepers batted below the bowling all-rounders of their respective teams. More often than not, the arrival of wicketkeeper on the crease signalled the beginning of the tail. Runs scored by a keeper were often considered bonus runs. A keeper who could bat as well as he kept was considered more of an exception than a norm.

Consider the batting stats of some of the best known wicketkeepers of the earlier generation (meaning wicketkeepers who played their last international test before the beginning of 2000). By most cricket logic, these following wicket keepers (in no particular order) may be considered to be among the best that have ever donned the gloves for their respective teams. There may be some disagreement about some of the keepers missing out at the edges, but we may consider this more or less an adequate representation of the greatest keepers of the 20th century.

Name of the Wicket Keeper Team Represented Test Playing Years Test Batting Average
Ian Healy Australia 1988-1999 27.39
Rodney Marsh Australia 1970-1984 26.51
Jeff Dujon West Indies 1981-1991 31.94
Alan Knott England 1967-1981 32.75
Wasim Bari Pakistan 1967-1984 15.88
Godfrey Evans England 1946-1959 20.49
Les Ames England 1929-1939 40.56
Syed Kirmani India 1976-1986 27.04
Jack Russel England 1988-1998 27.10
David Richardson South Africa 1988-1992 24.26
Bob Taylor England 1971-1984 16.28
Ian Smith New Zealand 1980-1992 25.56
Wally Gout Australia 1957-1966 15.08
Deryck Murray West Indies 1963-1980 22.90
Kiran More India 1986-1993 25.70
Bert Oldfield Australia 1920-1937 22.65

Leslie Ames stands out in the list with an average that is a good few miles ahead of the next best one. As Wisden wrote in his obituary after his death in 1990, he was at that point “without a doubt the greatest wicketkeeper-batsman the game has so far produced”. His record is especially glorious considering that he played in the 1930s when the concept of a wicket keeper batsman would have been an alien one.

Apart from Ames, the highest averaging batsman among this lot is Alan Knott with a not very Bradmanesque average of 32.75. Only Jeff Dujon and Alan Knott can boast of a career average of more than 30. In other words, most of these wicketkeepers were capable of playing the odd memorable fighting innings coming lower down the order, but only a few of them could walk into a test side on the strength of their batting alone.

All of these changed in the late nineties. Andy Flower and Alec Stewart were among the first batsman-wicketkeepers who played in the top order and were among the best batsmen of their respective test teams. But the real pioneer was Adam Gilchrist whose free-wheeling batting style and prolific scoring at the Number 7 position of a strong Australian batting order transformed the definition of a wicketkeeper batsman. Suddenly, teams were no longer content having technically correct wicket keepers who were sitting ducks with the bat. Adam Gilchrist had shown the world how having a proper batsman who could also keep could transform the balance of a side. A hitherto unsexy position was turned into the fulcrum of any successful test team.

The period starting from 2000 was astounding for wicketkeepers. While a lot of experts comment on how cricket has changed in the last fifteen years, nowhere has probably this change been more noticeable than in the field of wicket keeping. While the impact was more felt in One Day Internationals, even in test cricket, the careers of standalone expert gloves men faded away as teams were even willing to try out makeshift keepers who could bat really well. A team like Pakistan was willing to persist with Kamran Akmal’s often terrible catching abilities for so many years only because he brought precious runs to the table.

The period also saw the coming of age of a bunch of new exciting wicket keeping talents with prodigious run scoring abilities. Brad Haddin proved to be an able candidate for filling Gilchrist’s outsized gloves when the latter retired. Sri Lanka found Sangakkara who was not only a keeper but also at times, the best batsman in the squad. Similarly, England got lucky with Matt Prior, a useful lower middle order batsman, and one of the best in a long list of English wicket keeper batsmen. New Zealand unearthed Brendon McCullum, one of the most destructive batsmen of this era. South Africa had the extremely reliable Mark Boucher keeping things tight behind the stump as well as lower down the batting order. Pakistan, of course, gave a long rope to Kamran Akmal who was probably better as a batsman than as a keeper. India whose cupboard of wicket keeper-batsmen had till then looked embarrassingly bare managed to find MS Dhoni, by far the best wicket keeper batsman India has ever produced and probably the nation’s most impactful cricketer of the last decade. Even Bangladesh and Zimbabwe were blessed with two once in a generation wicketkeepers in the form of Mushfiqur Rahim and Brendan Taylor respectively.

Consider the batting averages of this new breed of wicket keepers:

Name of the Wicket Keeper Team Represented Test Playing Years Test Batting Average*
Adam Gilchrist Australia 1999-2008 47.60
Alec Stewart England 1990-2003 39.94
Andy Flower Zimbabwe 1992-2002 51.54
Mark Boucher South Africa 1997-2012 30.30
Kumar Sangakkara Sri Lanka 2000-2015 57.40
Brad Haddin Australia 2008-2015 32.98
MS Dhoni India 2005-2014 38.09
Brendon McCullum New Zealand 2004- 38.76
Matt Prior England 2007-2014 40.18
Kamran Akmal Pakistan 2002-2010 30.79
Mushfiqur Rahim Bangladesh 2005- 32.31
Brendan Taylor Zimbabwe 2004-2014 34.72

*Includes runs scored while not keeping as well

If we were to select an all time best wicket keepers’ eleven, more than half of the eleven by any reasonable estimate and judgement should come from the above list.

There are a few theories on this radical transformation in the role of a wicket keeper. One is, of course, that batting average has increased over the years and consequently, the wicket keeper averages more now than ever before. While this is a valid theory to an extent, it does not explain why the batting averages of wicket keepers have increased more than the corresponding increase in averages of top order batsmen. There are others who may argue that team selectors have belatedly realized the importance of having a batting wicket keeper. In absence of world class all-rounders, as has been the case with most test teams in the last decade and a half, the balance of a team requires a wicketkeeper to shoulder a higher burden of the batting responsibility. And as a result, selectors have been willing to ignore a few missed catches and stumpings in favour of a better batting average.

There may, however, be a less spectacular justification. We may have just got lucky with an incredible array of wicket keeping talents bursting onto the global stage within a few years of each other. This may well have been the golden age of wicket keepers, much like the 80s were the golden decade of fast bowling all-rounders. Thus while wicket keepers in the future may no longer afford to get away with a below 20 average, most of the successful ones may end up averaging more like a decent bowling all-rounder (low to mid 30s).

Adding to this sense of generation change is the fact that a number of these wicketkeepers have recently retired or have stopped keeping for their teams. McCullum has given up keeping long back. MS Dhoni and Matt Prior both retired earlier this year. Brad Haddin’s career looks as good as over. Kamran Akmal is out in the wilderness and may never play again for Pakistan. Brendan Taylor has taken retirement from Zimbabwean cricket after the 2015 World Cup and has instead signed a contract with Nottinghamshire. Even Mushfiqur Rahim, the youngest of the lot, has signalled that he will not keep any more to concentrate more on his batting (the last test series against South Africa featured Liton Das behind the stumps). Thus Sangakkara’s retirement well and truly marks the end of a generation.

This does not mean there will be no great wicketkeeper in the future. Take a look, for example, at the current crop of wicketkeepers representing their respective sides.

Name of the Wicket Keeper Team Represented Test Matches Played Test Batting Average
Jos Butler England 13 35.05
Dinesh Chandimal Sri Lanka 21 44.09
Quinton de Kock South Africa 6 33.00
BJ Watling New Zealand 31 40.71
Liton Das Bangladesh 3 32.33
Denesh Ramdin West Indies 69 26.28
Wriddhiman Saha India 7 23.66
Sarfaraz Ahmed Pakistan 18 50.30
Peter Neville South Africa 4 23.83

These numbers are not to be scoffed at. However, of this lot, only Denesh Ramdin has scored more than 2000 test runs while most of the remaining players still have their test careers in infancy. A lot of them have spent years labouring for less fancied first class teams, while legends have kept the wickets for their national teams. It is thus a little unfair to judge them so soon. Many of them, like Quinton de Kock, Liton Das and Jos Butler are very young and clearly talented and may bloom to become great wicket keeper batsmen. But the fact still remains that they are a long way away from recreating the glory days of the wicket keeper batsman. And it is quite possible that they may never reach their potential and may fade along the way.

It is said that in many disciplines, a rising trend of data does not indicate that the rise shall continue till eternity. Very often, it turns out to be temporary spikes and eventually, the data comes back to its long run average. If this phenomenon, known as mean reversion, holds good for wicket keeper batsmen as well, we may have just seen the end of the golden age of this tribe with the retirement of Sangakkara. Years from now, cricket nerds may look back and consider this the point the glorious age ended.

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