March 18, 2005

Dhoni could ease Dravid's burden

By H Natarajan

Adam Gilchrist’s batting average, till little over a year back, was exceeding 61 - second only to Sir Don Bradman. With 14 hundreds and a devastating strike-rate, the Australian epitomises the modern school of thought where keepers are expected to be a force with the bat.

A keeper-batsman provides depth and balance, besides options to balance the composition. Most present day Test sides have keepers of proven merit. Sri Lanka has Kumar Sangakarra, a batsman with seven hundreds, a highest of 270 and an average fractionally under 50. Interestingly, in 23 innings as a pure batsman he averages an incredible 68.32 – the highest in Test history by a keeper playing as a pure batsman.

Zimbabwe, till not long ago, had Andy Flower – counted among the best batsmen of his times. He scored 12 hundreds (highest 232 not out) and finished his Test career with an average tipping over 51. The left-handedness of Gilchrist, Sangakarra and Flower are additional value-adds. Since the exit of Flower, Zimbabwe has found a quick and good replacement in Tatenda Taibu, who recently smashed a career-best 153.

South Africa has the dangerous Mark Boucher way down a strong line-up. Boucher exhibited his batting worth in his very second Test, establishing a Test record ninth-wicket partnership of 195 runs with Pat Symcox. The sting in the tail came after South Africa were 166 for eight at one point.

Boucher was out for a while for reasons that presumably had nothing to do with his performance. South Africa found a new hero in Abraham Benjamin de Villiers – a 21-year-old who averages over 46 from six Tests. Boucher, however, was recalled as keeper for the final two Tests against England – de Villiers playing as a specialist bat to score 92 and 109 at Centurion and 98 and 47 in his next two outings (vs Zimbabwe). What luxurious back-up options!

England had Alec Stewart (15 hundreds and an average close to 40) till not long back and now seem to have found an able successor in Geraint Jones, while New Zealand have Brendon McCullum, who has a highest of 143 and four fifties from 10 Tests.

In comparison, India have gone through an extended nightmare with their keeping choices - they have been lacking in quality and/or consistency both in front and behind the wickets – ever since the decision to keep Nayan Mongia out. India’s position is sad considering the rich heritage it has in this department – Naren Tamhane, Budhi Kunderan, Farokh Engineer, Syed Kirmani, Kiran More and Mongia himself.

In the past, Engineer was the first choice keeper for two star-studded World XIs teams and his near pre-lunch hundred on the first day against a West Indies attack of Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Garry Sobers and Lance Gibbs is part of India’s great cricketing heroisms. Kirmani succeeded Engineer after a long gestation period and in time was widely acknowledged as the finest-ever Indian keeper. Kiri played in the golden era of keepers – a period that saw the likes of the great Allan Knott, Rod Marsh and Wasim Bari. Many reckoned – and not without reason – that Bob Taylor was the world’s best, but Knott’s superior batting credentials upstaged him for long.

Since Mongia’s final hurrah - against Australia, at Kolkata, in March 2001 - India have had limited success fielding Sameer Dighe, Deep Das Gupta, Ajay Ratra, Parthiv Patel and now Dinesh Karthik. A little earlier, India also had called upon Vijay Dahiya and MSK Prasad, again without much success. Dighe is history, Das Gupta got a Test hundred but had major problems behind the wickets, Ratra scored a hundred in the West Indies and may be the only one of the recent crop of Indian keepers who may have genuine grouse about not getting a fair run.

Young and promising, Patel’s glove work, however, deteriorated with the passage of time. Technical flaws crept into his game and affected his and India’s performances. Statistician Anant Gaundalkar is on record saying that in the 19 Tests Patel has played, he has taken 39 catches and stumped seven - a dismal ratio of 2.42 dismissals per game. Gaundalkar adds that during the same time, Patel has missed as many as 24 chances and conceded 177 byes, costing India a total of 676 runs - seven runs more than he has scored.

Karthik had a forgettable time as keeper at Mohali and will be under the scanner. A poor showing in Kolkata could force the selectors to call on Jharkhand's Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

Dhoni paraded his batting merits in the 2004 Kenya Triangular where he emerged as the tournament’s highest run-getter with 362 runs (average 72.40). In his first three outings against Pakistan in that championship, he had successive scores of 70, 120 and 119 not out. He also credited himself with 16 dismissals - 13 catches and 3 stumpings. But more than that, he conceded just three byes in the entire tournament.

If Dhoni can reproduce that kind of form at the international level, it will help Rahul Dravid revert as a specialist batsman in ODIs. This is not to dismiss the likes of Karthik and Patel. Karthik, who has two first class hundreds, is still 19 while Patel completed 20 just this month. Both are young and have age on their side to learn and improve.

To get back to the Kenya triangular, in comparison to Dhoni, the Pakistan keeper finished with a batting average of 8.42 from seven innings. The keeper? Kamran Akmal, whose man-of-the-match winning award hundred thwarted India from winning the Mohali Test!

Even the presence of two classy wicketkeepers (Kirmani and More) as chairmen of National selection committees has not done anything to buck the trend. Keeping continues to be our Achilles heel. Maybe the Indian Board needs to hold more camps for the keepers like the one they had a few years back under Rodney Marsh and Syed Kirmani at the National Cricket Academy, Bangalore.

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