By Isabelle Westbury
Who’d be a keeper? Perhaps we all should. When Adam Gilchrist made his state and then national debut, he walked out to a stream of boos. Not from the opposition but from his home crowd, upset that he had usurped the incumbent keeper. Twelve years later, as he stepped off the pitch for the last time in an Australian shirt, he was a man credited with changing the nature of the keeper/batter forever.
“Who’d be a keeper?” is a phrase frequently attributed to the lonely art of football goalkeeping, such is the risk of the role. One minute they might pull off a great save, the next they are the villain, their career forever tainted by a split-second mistake.
Just ask Liverpool’s Loris Karius.
Parallels can be drawn with cricket’s keepers, not just in skill but in those crucial moments of individual pressure. It is a unique, daunting and often uncompromising role. For most, we never venture near the art, safe in the familiarity of the core disciplines of bowling and batting. One of the main deterrents, as Gilchrist knows, is that in any given team there is room for just one keeper.
Or is there? Gilchrist was first selected for Western Australia to the exclusion of WACA favourite Tim Zoehrer in 1992. These days, however, it is fast becoming the norm for international white-ball sides to field two or more keepers in their starting XIs. Not to share duties behind the stumps, but coming in as bona fide batters in their own right. Unsurprisingly, they are often pretty handy fielders.
The rise of the wicketkeeper/batter might be attributed to two things. One, famously, is directly attributed to Gilchrist – that the label of keeper is no longer such an indelible, one-dimensional tag.
There was a time when keepers were judged on their glovemanship alone and any batting ability deemed a welcome, but insignificant, extra. While that meant there were some fine specialist glovemen, it also meant that once a player had committed to donning the gloves, they were forever vying for one spot in a team, instead of the five or so for bowlers and batters respectively.
It was difficult to shake off the label, with few selectors seemingly able to distinguish a player’s skill as a batter from that of a keeper.
Now, however, there is a much more pragmatic approach and professional teams now expect batting ability to permeate throughout the order. England men’s one-day squad now boast the likes of Jonny Bairstow, Sam Billings and Jos Buttler, all of whom could and would take the gloves given the opportunity. All three make the side (or thereabouts) on batting ability alone.
Similarly, England women have played every match this summer with three options behind the stumps in their starting XI: Sarah Taylor, Amy Jones and Tammy Beaumont.
There is, therefore, perhaps another reason for this deluge of keepers into one-day cricket sides. It is what their training, and their perspective as keepers, offers when they have bat in hand. Some of the most innovative batters in the world game – Buttler,
AB de Villiers, Taylor – are keepers. They are the most natural players of 360-degree shots, like ramps, reverse sweeps and scoops, often manoeuvring into front-on positions with toes pointing directly back at the bowler, almost as if they were… a wicketkeeper.
“I haven’t necessarily thought about it that way,” says Tammy Beaumont, top-scorer in the recently concluded Tri-Nations T20 series between England, New Zealand and South Africa. “It’s not necessarily something that you consciously carry across,” she says, confirming perhaps that the best batters, when in form, really are in a different ‘zone’.
“But I do think wicketkeepers are a bit of a ‘fine breed’ shall we say, a bit different, in that we are not scared to try those sorts of things. Wicketkeepers aren’t bothered about getting down and scooping the ball and maybe taking it on the chest a few times in practice.
“Obviously as a wicketkeeper you’re used to seeing the ball rise up so it might be something about the way that you track it off the wicket,” muses Beaumont. “The manner in which you are standing up to the stumps and almost staying low until it bounces – I think a key part of those scoop shots or reverse shots is getting low and watching it bounce and getting up with that. I don’t know – maybe there’s a bit more research that needs to be done into it!”
Then there’s the theory that keepers, as well as being a bit different, crave the limelight. Beaumont jokingly cites Taylor’s leg-side stumpings as prime highlight fodder. However, she also wonders whether the willingness to try new, sometimes flashy, shots is down to keepers being the “kind of person that wants to be involved in every single ball and who has that kind of character – a bit of a ‘puppy dog at everyone’s ankles’ thing. That’s what drew me to it in a way!”
Some of the best cricketers over time have excelled in many different sports – CB Fry, Suzie Bates, de Villiers and Ellyse Perry to name but a few. These all-rounders have used the skills that they might need for one sport to channel into and improve those needed for another, often unconsciously. The same might be said of wicketkeeper/batters; these are all-rounders, simply using their feet, their hand-eye co-ordination, the head position that they might need for one discipline to help improve the other. Even though, as Beaumont suggests, they might not realise it.
Last month, current Australia captain Tim Paine did the unthinkable when he suggested that Jos Buttler, perhaps the greatest innovator, is now “the best white-ball wicketkeeper/batsman in the world, ahead of even MS Dhoni”.
Buttler at least had the presence of mind to remember just how forceful the loyalty, and ferocity, of India’s cricket-following public can be, deftly attributing his own impressive performances to imagining “what MS Dhoni would do”.
Paine, however, might not be far off the truth; Dhoni is a wicketkeeper/batter of some magnitude, but he is of the Adam Gilchrist mould – an explosive timer of the ball. Perhaps, with this new generation of wicketkeeper/batters we have moved on a step further: to the greatest innovators of them all.