Ryan Campbell dives for a catch

A replacement keeper for Adam Gilchrist at Western Australia, Ryan Campbell was better known for the flying starts he gave them with the bat

© Getty Images


Glovemen apart

From eccentrics to game changers and now to leaders, where will - or won't - wicketkeepers go next?

Jon Hotten  |  

The single most remarkable piece of cricket gear I have ever seen resided not in a bat-maker's den or the Lord's Museum but in the bottom of a club kitbag of one of the first teams I played for.

The concept of the club kitbag has almost died out now, in an age where gear is marketed, coveted and fetishised, but back then most sides had a couple of guys who weren't bothered about owning equipment of their own and who were happy to delve around in the club bag for a pair of mismatched pads, some sweat-stained gloves, maybe a mildewed thigh pad they could use and chuck back at the end of the day.

Within this particular club bag it lay, cold and ancient. A stitched-in manufacturer's label described it as an "abdominal guard" but that hardly did it justice. It looked like something Henry V wore to Agincourt, a great tin codpiece attached to a wide, padded V-shaped belt that had to be stepped into like a jockstrap and then secured around the waist with a couple of long ties.

It was universally known as "Cyril's Box" after the only man who would (or could) wear it, the 1st team wicketkeeper, Cyril. He was a remarkable man, mid-fifties, squat, powerful, with giant, hooked hands permanently ingrained with grease. I never discovered what it was that Cyril did for a living, but it was some kind of hard physical labour that had produced both great strength and admirable stoicism. He rarely said anything. Instead he turned up in the dressing room every Saturday, stripped off his street clothes, retrieved the box from wherever he had thrown it the week before, strapped himself in, pulled the rest of his gear over it and walked out onto the pitch.

Alan Knott: possessed of an acute sense of what delivery was coming

Alan Knott: possessed of an acute sense of what delivery was coming © PA Photos

Like the young Rod Marsh, Cyril had iron gloves. The ball often used to fly off them at tremendous speed, accompanied on crucial occasions by a muttered oath. He'd sometimes stand up to the opening bowlers, usually without explanation, and it was then that the abdominal guard earned its corn. The ball would smack Cyril in the vital area and then ricochet away with a metallic clang. On one occasion a batsman was caught at second slip direct from Cyril's box and the game took a while to restart: several people were actually crying with laughter; Cyril wasn't one of them.

After a match Cyril would silently remove his box, sometimes pushing out a dent with a thick thumb. He'd get changed back into his street clothes and then wander up to the pub, his love for the game expressed perfectly and eloquently in the slow satisfaction of his walk.

He reinforced the pervading impression of the man behind the sticks as a different breed, a notion often mentioned by commentators on TV and radio. On Test Match Special, Brian Johnston, a wicketkeeper himself, would tell stories about "Godders" - otherwise known as Godfrey Evans - England's long-retired, bewhiskered stumper, who became a successful bookmaker and a famous seducer of women. On television, England's current incumbent was Alan Knott, an elfin man of Kent who wore battered red gloves, long-sleeved shirts and sometimes a sunhat with an upturned brim. His eyes were set in a permanent squint (this was long before the time of sunglasses on the field: that would have been an eccentricity too far, even for a wicketkeeper). Knott's height, or rather lack of it, set him apart too. Photographers were always looking for a shot of him craning his neck up at Tony Greig or Bob Willis. He had an almost mystical partnership with Derek Underwood, who on any sort of damp wicket could make the ball cut and spit at almost medium pace. Knott would stand up to the stumps, and although the batsman had no real idea what Underwood might deliver, Knott always seemed to.

I remember one catch by Bob Taylor, a fast, rising ball taken above his head in which the act of catching merged seamlessly with the act of celebration

All of this created the sense that Knott was a man apart, even within his team. The others shared a skill - they batted or bowled and they fielded - but Knott's position was unique and it was valued as such. In the 1970s, picking the best wicketkeeper in the country in the national team was as natural a selection as having the best spinner or the best opener. Or at least it may be fairer to say that having a specialist wicketkeeper was a natural selection: Knott was a magnificent keeper, yet it was often said that Bob Taylor, who kept for Derbyshire, was even better. But Knott could make Test centuries. During the 1970-71 tour to Australia and New Zealand, when Knott played an important part in England's Ashes win, he stepped aside for the first Test against New Zealand so that Taylor could play, reward for a long tour as understudy. Knott made his maiden Test century in the second Test and didn't miss another for seven years.

Taylor, in his way, was even more remarkable. Four years older than Knott, he played first-class cricket for 28 years, and dismissed more batsmen than anyone else in history - 1649 in all. His particular talent was in standing up to the stumps - even to Ian Botham on occasion. In his 1977 Cricketer of the Year citation, Wisden said: "he has been without peer in the world for some years". When he got his chance with England, he lived up to the hype. I remember one catch, a fast, rising ball taken above his head in which the act of catching merged seamlessly with the act of celebration in a single upwards movement of his arm.

He and Knott were the kind of wicketkeepers who mis-gloved a ball not once a game but once a season, and they came from a long line. Taylor used to speak in awed tones of Northamptonshire's Keith Andrew. There was Jim Parks at Sussex, John Murray at Middlesex, George Sharp at Northamptonshire, men who crouched behind the sticks for decades on end, their trade accepted as specialist and integral to team performance.

© PA Photos

It bred a particular mindset in English keepers and their team-mates that reached its height with the arrival of Jack Russell, a man almost as well-known for his eccentricities as his glovework. He wore a tatty sunhat that only he and his wife (who repaired it) were allowed to touch. He drank 20 cups of tea a day, all made with the same teabag, and took his own supply of baked beans on tour. He was supposed to have blindfolded the builders who were being driven to his house so that they wouldn't know where it was. A little like goalkeepers, wicketkeepers were indulged for their separateness.

November 5, 1999 was when everything changed. That was the day Adam Gilchrist made his Test debut for Australia against Pakistan at the Gabba. The crowd booed him because they wanted to see Ian Healy take his final bow on his home ground. Gilchrist took five catches and a stumping but more pertinently made 81 from 88 deliveries and began to reset the parameters of what a wicketkeeper-batsman could be. Before he came, a wicketkeeper might save a Test with the bat. Gilchrist won them and suddenly every Test side wanted a keeper who could shape games and average the same as batsmen; every ODI team wanted one who could open the batting in a blaze of boundaries. They got them too, because who could watch Gilchrist and not want to be like him? He was a revolutionary cricketer, and by the time he walked away, the thought that a wicketkeeper's wicketkeeping might be the major criterion for his selection had gone forever.

"Godders" Evans: stumper, bookmaker, seducer © Getty Images

The era of the batsman-keeper was here. Never before had wicketkeepers scored so heavily or so often. Kumar Sangakkara and Brendon McCullum gave the gloves away when the job started to impinge on their batting (and why not: they were batting for so long, it was hard to go out and keep for days on end too). When the last of the great traditionalists, Mark Boucher, was forced into retirement, South Africa gave the gloves to the world's best all-round batsman, AB de Villiers. England found Matt Prior, a Sussex yeoman who became a brutal middle-order enforcer as they became the world's best Test team (curiously, Prior never made the short form his own, so a series of Gilchrist's echoes - Craig Kieswetter, Steven Davies, Phil Mustard and Jos Buttler - arrived instead).

From India came a cricketer perhaps even more remarkable than Gilchrist, a motorbike-riding, ponytailed slugger named MS Dhoni. If stardust glittered in Gilchrist's wake, it simply stuck to Dhoni, a man who fulfilled India's dreams by winning the World Cup with a six, who reshaped the future with the World T20 victory, who delivered the top Test ranking too. Dhoni may not be the greatest wicketkeeper on earth but he is by far the most famous.

Dhoni became captain of India's limited-overs sides in 2007 and Test skipper the following year. Imagine this state for a moment; take a while to consider the depth and breadth of this task. Throughout cricket history, great batsmen, delicate flowers that they are, have worried that captaincy has affected their form. Bowlers aren't often given the job. Wicketkeepers? Almost never. Although a wicketkeeper is in the ideal position to assess bowler, batsman and pitch and to see the game from a central position, he is too quirky, too absorbed in a role that demands epic concentration, in which one slip might cost a game. Add to that the expectations and duties placed on a captain, and the weight of a nation such as India, and the magnitude of Dhoni's achievement, the comic-book scale on which he lives life, seem like something out of fiction. How does he do it?

© Getty Images

Captaincy has had its own revolutions. In Test cricket this has come with the rise of analytics and data. Deep off-field study has meant that half the job is now done outside playing hours, on laptops and in team rooms. The arrival of central contracts and a packed calendar have turned the job into the equivalent of running a medium-sized company, with all its 24x7 challenges and woes. In the white-ball game, and especially T20, there's rarely a single delivery's rest.

Such a mentally demanding task should surely mitigate further against wicketkeeper-batsman-captains, and yet Dhoni is not an exception. Gilchrist famously won a Test series in India as stand-in skipper, a task that drove the likes of Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting to distraction. Then came a wave, a mini-movement, that saw Sangakkara skipper Sri Lanka for a couple of years from 2009 (although he gave up the gloves in Tests at the same time), McCullum boss New Zealand in T20s and then ODIs before becoming Test captain (and giving up the gloves) in 2013, de Villiers take over from Graeme Smith as South Africa's limited-overs captain (and give up the gloves 18 months later), and now Denesh Ramdin lead the West Indies Test team.

As with many other aspects of cricket's rose-tinted past, it's easy to mourn what we have lost and ignore what we have gained. Cricket has been improved in immeasurable ways by the pleasure that these players have brought, and they have driven the game forwards. With more games of Test cricket being won and lost, the draws that come along now are often thrilling and significant rather than a fall-back position. The wicketkeeping position (captaincy aside) has become one of on-field generalship, running the "fielding unit". Artistry has given way to a very modern professionalism, and the keeper is no longer a man apart. There is, after all, no "I" in team. It has become the only role - save the genuine allrounder's - for which selection is contingent on another skill altogether: the ability to bat.

It would be easy to see this as the future of wicketkeeping forever, and yet cricket is never still. I would suggest that it's in T20s, where the keeper's role looks the most disposable, that the change may come.

Adam Gilchrist: the man who changed everything

Adam Gilchrist: the man who changed everything © Getty Images

The thought began to form as Hampshire, my county, had a glorious little run with the white ball, one that brought them two domestic one-day cups and two T20 titles. These rewards seemed at odds with the ability of the team, who were financially outgunned by far richer counties and lacked a box-office overseas performer. What they had, though, was a very particular method, especially at their home, the Rose Bowl, where wickets were low and skiddy. They used lots of medium pace and flat spin and choked the life out of big-hitting teams. As the tactic developed, their remarkable young wicketkeeper, Michael Bates, became central, often standing up to the stumps for most of the innings.

What Hampshire had hit on was simply an equation of resources. T20 is a game for specialisation, because unlike Tests and ODIs, those resources are rarely exhausted in the time allocated.

At the start of each game, the wicketkeeper is the only specialist position guaranteed to be able to affect a minimum 50% of the match while using his primary skill (the 20 overs for which they keep). A bowler has 10% (four of 40 overs), the two opening batsmen an unlikely maximum of 50%, the other batsmen a sliding downward scale from there.

The wicketkeeping position can therefore be reimagined as an attacking option. It's an opportunity to reduce the effectiveness of the batsman by keeping him in his crease against seam bowling, thus reducing his scoring options. While it's hard to quantify exactly how many runs might be saved by a gloveman capable of standing up to the seamers, it is a move that would challenge many of the techniques of T20 batting. It might not be fanciful to guess that the score might be limited by 20 to 30 runs per innings, at least until batsmen adjust in turn.

It was easy to go into some kind of reverie when watching Bates; he brought back memories of Taylor standing up to Botham, of the impish skills of Knott, the silken hands of Russell.

Hampshire's Michael Bates: shades of Knott, Russell and Taylor

Hampshire's Michael Bates: shades of Knott, Russell and Taylor © Getty Images

These men were a different shape to the gym-produced, identikit bodies that burst forth from the tight-shirted present. The demands of the job mitigate against the physique needed for power-hitting, and a specialist wicketkeeper might have to be regarded a little like a bowler, with his main contribution coming in the field. But without running the stats, it would be interesting to know how often the seventh batsman has done the job when six others couldn't.

At the time of Hampshire's successes there was much talk of Sarah Taylor, England Women's sublimely talented wicketkeeper, playing a match for Sussex 2nds. While mixed sides may be counterproductive to both the men's and women's games in the long run, a talent like Taylor's would fit well into a T20 game, where her batting would be less relevant.

Hampshire dropped Bates when they signed Adam Wheater, who is a better batsman. Many, including me, were sad to see it happen, because watching Bates was a reminder of what an electrifying skill wicketkeeping can be.

We are living through an extraordinary era in the game. It has changed more in the last decade than it had in the previous five, and so hazarding a guess at where it might go next would be contingent on predicting the arrival of another shape-shifter like Gilchrist, or a quickie who can bowl at 100mph, or a new Bradman. Sometimes relatively small changes - like Bates keeping a batsman in his crease - can have quite profound effects as opponents try to come up with answers to new questions. Wicketkeeping gave us one of the last great shifts in the momentum of change. It would be wonderful to see it happen again.

Jon Hotten blogs here. @theoldbatsman