The era of the super-keeper

“He completely changed the way we looked at wicketkeepers. After his ascent, specialist wicketkeepers started taking a back seat and wicketkeepers who could contribute big runs with the bat came into prominence.”

Of all the great things which Adam Gilchrist achieved in the game, there can be few more influential things than the change he wrought in the role of the wicket keeper. As Kumar Sangakkara, one of Gilchrist’s contemporaries and a close friend noted, he completely changed the way we look at wicket keepers.

The measure of Gilchrist’s influence has been thoroughly evident recently. In South Africa AB De Villiers has continued to step seamlessly into the shoes of Mark Boucher behind the stumps with 17 catches in the series against Pakistan. It helps when you have bowlers as good as Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and in the final match Kyle Abbott to make the chances but De Villiers is snaffling them well. More importantly for the balance of the team is that his form with the bat has been unaffected, as he finished the season with two centuries, an average of 88 and a place at number five secured.

Meanwhile as South Africa were finishing off against Pakistan, MS Dhoni was compiling what was surely his finest ever innings as he scored his maiden double century and put India in a dominant position from where they can beat Australia. Dhoni’s qualities are well known, particularly in the shorter form, but here was a controlled, powerful display with the bat as he thrived against seam and particularly spin where he took apart Nathan Lyon repeatedly.

If Dhoni is considering giving up Test Cricket, which has long been mooted as a possibility, it would be a bitter shame because this was a captain’s knock of the highest calibre, riding to the rescue as his team tottered and then, Gilchrist-esque, turning the tables decisively.

What both these two and England’s Matt Prior (average 43, six centuries and general heartbeat of the team) have done, is made this the era of Test cricket the era of the super-keeper. It’s easy in a game with as rich and wondrous a history as cricket to fall into a “things ain’t as good as they used to be” mentality, but the truth is that in terms of wicket keeper-batsmen, “things have never been better” is a more fitting statement.

Of all the keepers with the highest average, these three occupy places within the top ten list who have played more than 20 innings as wicket keeper, headed by Andy Flower with Gilchrist, Les Ames, Sangakkara, Clyde Walcott surrounding them. Yet the point is that Test Cricket has seldom had the consistency of quality keeper-batsmen as we have now.

Flower and Gilchrist’s contemporaries included Junior Murray, Mark Boucher and Moin Khan, mainly wicket keepers than batsmen while Ames and Walcott both played at a time when few wicket keepers were expected to bat. Intriguingly two of the next three names on the list are recent wicket-keepers, Brad Haddin and Brendan McCullum, further underlining the point.

And it shows no sign of stopping. Australia have Matthew Wade playing for them, already a very accomplished batsman and a young player who ought to develop capably, while Tim Paine – also a capable batsman – also lies in wait providing he can keep his fingers free of damage. England have recently introduced Jos Buttler, more a batsman than a keeper, into international limited overs cricket while South Africa have done the same with Quinton de Kock.

In time we may come to view Gilchrist as something of a symbol of what was to come, a prototype. Because whereas once such batting exploits from wicket-keepers were something unique, judging by recent events, they have fast become the norm for his successors.

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South Africa’s key men are hitting form ahead of the World Cup

Always the bridesmaid and never the bride in international cricket are South Africa. The biggest nation never to win an ICC trophy now that England has finally walked away with some silverware, but could next year’s tournament in India finally be their year?

Well going into every World Cup tournament, South Africa are always among the favourites, and you’d need to be fairly stingy not to name them this time.

This is the first World Cup in a long time which contains no clear favourites for the title, and while India’s home support and Sri Lanka’s unique talent are important, the sheer power and talent at South Africa’s disposal must also be considered.

Anyone who watched the impressive dismantling of Zimbabwe, granted against opposition far below their standards, will have been excited. Coach Corrie Van Zyl took the opportunity to blood younger players such as Peter Ingram, Rusty Theron and 21-year old David Miller and all three took their opportunity to impress.

Captain Graham Smith was equally impressed, lauding the performances of all three and declaring: “I think it’s great, you want to see these guys coming in and performing well.”

Yet what will have most delighted Smith will have been the form of three of the key men in South Africa’s batting line-up, all of whom will play a decisive part in their chances in India next year.

Firstly at the top of the order was Hashim Amla, who scored two centuries and averaged almost 80 over 3 games, then there was the return of J P Duminy, who after a relatively quiet 12 months, finished the series with his highest ODI score, and the continued success of A B De Villiers who showed that taking the gloves has not affected his form with the bat.

The importance of these three to South Africa’s chances in India cannot be underestimated. Of all of South Africa’s batsmen, these are the three best suited to scoring in India, where the slower, spinning surfaces tend to suit the spin bowlers and players who play with their wrists and score through placement as much as power.

All three have impressive records in India, Amla averages over 100  there after a frankly stupendous tour last year, De Villiers averages over 50 and racked up his highest test score of 217, while JP Duminy smashed 99 not out against Royal Challengers Bangalore. An innings which led Ian Chappell to label him “a great in the making”.

These three will be the beating heart of South Africa’s challenge for honours in India, and while their performances in the Pakistan series will probably provide a better barometer of how well their players are doing, the signs so far suggest that when the time comes, South Africa and their dangermen will be up for the challenge.