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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2013: It’s going to be a big year

Generally the new year brings with it a sense of renewal, the turning of the page so to speak as we look ahead to the year that is to come and try to identify some people for whom 2013 will be a big year for.

Chris Woakes

Having been on the cusp of full international honours for the past two years, it is probably overly pessimistic to describe 2013 as make or break for Woakes. But one gets the feeling that this could be the year for the Warwickshire fast bowler especially given the recent travails affecting Broad and Bresnan’s form which could open up a gap in the bowler-who can score runs market for England. While his bowling is undoubtedly potent at County level, there are still doubts about his pace – though his role model ought to be Vernon Philander – a bowler of similar pace who does enough with the ball to worry opposition.

MS Dhoni

2013 starts with Dhoni finding himself in a position he’s not probably used to: under a cloud. His own form in Test Cricket is patchy, his leadership of the side underfire as he oversees a team which is palpably in decline with it’s aging batting stars fading and a pace and spin attack which has suddenly losing it’s edge. 2013 ought to be a defining one in Indian cricket, and if Dhoni is to remain in charge he must oversee an overhaul in personnel – dealing with the loss of Tendulkar and Sehwag while continuing to promote the Rahane’s, the Kohli’s and perhaps even the Chand’s, while also finding the right balance of wicket-takers in attack. It’s a tough ask for a captain whose own form is under scrutiny, but if he can set about dealing with India’s problems and set them back on the right track this year then it could redefine Dhoni’s legacy as Indian captain.

Phil Hughes

On the face of it, Australian cricket is on the rise again. They’ve just come off a bumper year in terms of Test cricket results, bar the South Africa series where they did most of the running but fell short at the end, have unearthed a battery of potent quick bowlers and have a captain whose own form has practically gone supernova. Yet scratch beneath the surface, and there are real worrying signs in this team, particularly in the batting line-up which will now say goodbye to Mike Hussey. Their openers have enjoyed up and down results, with Cowan in particular needing to find a big score, at four they have Shane Watson whose injury problems make him the Darren Anderton of cricket and who, when fit, still struggles to convert 50’s to 100’s. At five you have the captain, on another level, and at six you have a question-mark – Khawaja or David Hussey. Hence why this year is a big one for Phil Hughes. Technical and temperamental question marks aside, out of all the top four batsman he boasts the best record of all of them in terms of runs scored in Test Cricket, and one thing you can say about Hughes is that he does, despite all the flaws, score runs. And Australia need him to do it now, it’s a double Ashes year for goodness sake, one in which England are the favourites. Upset the odds and Hughes could make himself a hero.

Angelo Mathews

Something ain’t right in Sri Lankan cricket, something is sucking the life out of it. Perhaps it’s administrators, those greedy men in suits who will skim off the top and refuse to schedule enough Test’s for Sri Lanka. Perhaps it’s the domestic competition, which isn’t developing enough Test ready cricketers, perhaps it’s T20 which skews priorities and hinders player development. Or perhaps it’s the players themselves, who have got on a roll of losing and don’t know how to bring it back. It’s a big question to ask, but Sri Lanka need to get something back into their cricket, some fun, some sparkle, some enjoyment. Hence why this is a big year for Angelo Mathews – because he’s the best person to do it and a likely captain long-term. With Jayawardene, Sangakarra and Dilshan all sidling towards the exit, Sri Lanka need a new hero to look up to, as captain and especially with the bat. The most likely man to do that is Mathews. He’s got the talent, plenty of it, but needs to convert it into a consistent run of scores and if he can do that then Sri Lanka’s batting troubles could be eased somewhat and the give the likes of Thirimanne and Chandimal, good prospects for the future, something to work with and learn from.

Kane Williamson

One of my hopes for 2013 is that New Zealand cricket learns to love itself again. All the cricketing neutrals, bar the Australian’s perhaps, would say that of all the teams that play the game New Zealand are the one’s they most want to do well. We know they’ll never be able to compete in terms of resources and players with the big Test nations, but the fact that they used to so consistently punch above their weight and cause some bloody noses along the way made them eminently likeable. Add in the fact that most of their cricketers came across as decent, down-to-earth guys who played the game the right way and you have a cricket team who are hard not to like. But recently there’s not been a lot of love in New Zealand, in fact there’s been a lot of hate. From the coach who can’t manage, to a cricket board which is falling out with it’s captain and best player, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more inept cricketing structure – an achievement given they share a sport with the BCCI. The shame is, if you look close enough, you can see some green shoots of recovery in amongst all the detritus. They have a pace bowling attack which, finally being led by Tim Southee, has lots of promise, and a batting line-up which, when it fires, can be explosive. It also has unearthed it’s brightest batting prospect, arguably since Stephen Fleming, in Kane Williamson. The boy scores runs, lots of them, and having had a progressive 2012 he’s now the key wicket in this batting line-up. 2013 ought to be the year that really launches him on to a bigger stage, hopefully as part of a Kiwi revival – something all us neutrals would really love to see.

Quinton de Kock

How do you improve the number 1 Test team in the world? Pretty straightforward question, to which there is no answer, yet. The best hope for South Africa in terms of improvement could come from the continued development of a batsman who, by all accounts, is the best young player in the world right now. He scored the fourth most runs at the U19 World Cup last year, averages 67 (!) in domestic cricket, played a couple of sterling knocks in the Champions League for Highveld Lions and has already been fast-tracked to the South Africa T20 set-up. To boot, he can also keep wicket and appears to have the right kind of temperament to eventually step up to Test Cricket sooner rather than later. Who knows, he may even fill that troublesome number six position one day, but 2013 promises to be a big year for a young man with the world, apparently, at his feet.

Sunil Narine

For Sunil Narine, a cricketing career which was progressing so smoothly right up until he hit test cricket has suddenly come to a shuddering halt. All of a sudden all the variations, the ability to bamboozle batsmen which are so potent in the shorter form of the game have suddenly unravelled, and his average of 48 (compared with an average closer to 20 in all other forms) becomes a real hindrance. The challenge for Narine is that, with most other “mystery spinners” once they are caught out in one form, generally it tends to unravel in the other forms and Ajantha Mendis – the great spin hope of Sri Lanka five years ago – is a cautionary tale for Narine to be aware. 2013 will be a big year for him because it will either be the year where he asserts himself in Test cricket and becomes a long-term Test regular for West Indies or he doesn’t and becomes a short-form only player whose abilities to keep an end tight and occasionally knock over a couple of batsmen when they look to attack will be crucial to West Indies. For West Indies and Test Cricket as a whole, you have to hope it’s the former, that he can crack it in the longest form and become a potent force. Because West Indies need wicket-takers, and Test Cricket needs entertainers – Narine could fulfil both criteria, 2013 will go a long way to tell us if he can.

Junaid Khan

Junaid Khan ended 2012 definitively on a high. Ripping the heart out of India’s top order for Pakistan is a big thing, for a young Pakistan pace bowler, given the history of fine pace bowlers who have done the same in the past, it’s arguably even bigger. Thus it was no surprise that the Wasim Akram comparisons were wheeled out afterwards, a left-arm quick taking wickets in Pakistan will always be tagged with the Akram comparisons, but the positive for Khan is that in performing as well as he is, he’s stopped people lamenting the loss of another Pakistan left-arm seamer, Mohammed Aamer. His impact on Pakistan’s performances have been mixed, especially compared with the more consistent output from the experienced spin duo of Ajmal and Rehman. But Pakistan are an ageingteam, one who will soon be reliant on their younger players to lead the way and Khan, as he has already shown is more than up to the task. 2013 should enable him to put an even bigger marker down, with Tests against South Africa, current Test number 1, and a Champions Trophy in which Pakistan ought to fancy themselves as contenders.