We need to talk about how wicketkeeping has changed over the years

Sarah Taylor: fluid, and drawing the ball towards her before the batsman has even completed the shot Getty Images

In this edition of Rabbit Holes, Sidharth Monga, Karthik Krishnaswamy and Annesha Ghosh get together to discuss how the wicketkeeper's role and craft have evolved over the years.

Karthik Krishnaswamy, senior sub-editor, ESPNcricinfo: A good place to begin, I think, is the incredible outlier that was Les Ames.

Sidharth Monga, assistant editor: Yes, the first "wicketkeeper-batsman" in Test cricket. Two centuries by wicketkeepers in all 50 years of Tests before him, and then eight by him alone.

Krishnaswamy: Another big stat right here. During the course of his career no other keeper scored even 40% of the runs he managed.

Monga: On a podcast Andy Zaltzman did with Jarrod Kimber, he divided wicketkeeping-batting into eras. I've done the same thing and looked up stats from 1900 to 1949, 1950 to 1999, and 2000 to today. As you can tell from the graph below, there's a major shift from wicketkeepers batting mostly in the tail, to going up to No. 7.

Krishnaswamy: A distinct move from the tail to No. 7. And I'm guessing the 15% in the tail in the present era would typically be No. 8s - with nightwatchmen above them, or in teams with lots of allrounders.

Monga: Yes, so before the war, with pitches being difficult and over rates being high (Andy's point), wicketkeeping was a highly exhausting and specialist job.

Krishnaswamy: Yup. Don Bradman scored at much less than a run a ball when he made 309 in a day at Headingley. You can imagine the keeper's workload then.

Annesha Ghosh, sub-editor: And then if you had to keep in a skirt...

Krishnaswamy: Just from looking at scoring rates, I'd imagine over rates must have been even higher in women's cricket back in the day.

Ghosh: From my limited knowledge, from reading the limited literature available - yes, they were.

Krishnaswamy: Australia made 138 in 125.3 overs in the very first women's Test. I imagine Betty Snowball must have had an intense workload through that innings.

Monga: And in women's cricket, you have to stand up to the wicket much more often than in men's cricket. And that is the finer skill.

Ghosh: Mainly because spin bowlers are the dominant bowling option. Plus, the fast bowling is usually around 110-118kph. Cathryn Fitzpatrick was said to be the quickest in the first half of the 2000s; currently it's Lea Tahuhu and Shabnim Ismail, who routinely clock 125kph.

Krishnaswamy: Betty Snowball's profile on her player page above paints a good picture. It says, "[…] it was as one of the major figures of women's cricket for two decades from 1930 that she is best remembered, being a fine opening bat and generally accepted as the outstanding wicketkeeper of her generation […] always immaculate in turnout, and neat and tidy in technique, although enthusiasm added a flourish to efficiency." Wish we had footage - of not just women's cricket, but wicketkeepers from that era in general.

Monga: As a wicketkeeper-batter too, she was ahead of the curve. An average of 40 was unheard of in men's cricket at that time.

Krishnaswamy: Yup. Ames and no one else until Andy Flower and Adam Gilchrist came along.

Monga: Before Flower and Gilchrist, though, there was Alan Knott.

Karthik: Yes. He didn't average 40, but he was easily the best keeper-batsman of his time. And it's amazing that though Knott is reckoned one of the best keepers ever, Bob Taylor was considered even better.

Monga: England, perhaps unwittingly, started this revolution of picking wicketkeepers partly for their batting abilities back when they chose Knott ahead of Taylor.

Ghosh: Rebecca Rolls belonged in the same league as the likes of Knott. She was a powerful 5ft 10in New Zealand opener who was the first woman to get to 100 wicketkeeping dismissals in international cricket and featured in the World Cup-winning side in 2000, before going on to represent the country at two Olympics in football. Though relatively tall, Rolls was quick and agile as a wicketkeeper - which brings me to a slightly technical question…

On the subject of standing up to the wicket - what was the dominant style in men's cricket in the era of the Knott and Taylor: full squat or half? There seems to be have been a lot of debate about the efficacy of each of these styles.

Monga: Full squat, from what I've seen.

Krishnaswamy: Clyde Walcott kept in a few Tests for West Indies too, before that, didn't he?

Monga: True, but not for long.

Krishnaswamy: Fifteen Tests as keeper, 29 as a pure batsman. Averaged 40 with the bat as keeper, 64.66 as pure batsman. (Presaging Kumar Sangakkara in a way.) This goes to show how difficult it is to be both. While you may pick a batsman-keeper because of their batting, you might end up sacrificing the best of their batting.

Monga: The classic Alec Stewart-Jack Russell conundrum that England grappled with through the '90s.

Krishnaswamy: Did making Stewart keep get the best out of him as a batsman? But did Stewart as keeper plus the other specialist batsman who played ahead of Russell make more runs than Stewart as batsman plus Russell as keeper might have made? There's no definitive answer.

Monga: What we do know is that Russell had to be damn good to make them consider this question

Krishnaswamy: On that subject: this clip.

Monga: That leg-side stumping off Gladstone Small is dope.

Krishnaswamy: Look at those hands.

Monga: Talk of hands reminds me of stories when wicketkeeping gloves were so inadequate, keepers used to stuff steaks in them to cushion their fingers. This happened as recently as Imtiaz Ahmed (who started keeping because Hanif Mohammad used to drop a lot of catches) who placed gosht inside his gloves.

Krishnaswamy: So many profiles of keepers from back in the day that talk about their hands becoming permanently misshapen into claws.

Ghosh: On leg-side stumpings: they require a greater degree of awareness, and going by one of Sarah Taylor's interviews with Wisden, the relative slowness of quick bowlers and the flight of spinners, which is significantly greater than in men's spin, are key weapons to entrap the batter, who often end up running past one. Here's Nat Sciver sending down one to Ellyse Perry and Taylor doing the needful.

Krishnaswamy: Taylor is the only keeper I know who's an outstanding batter as well, but her batting is hardly talked about because of her out-of-this-world keeping.

Monga: She is the best I have seen.

I am surprised that in this age of data we don't have people measuring the impact of wicketkeeping. So we don't have a definitive answer to whether a superb batsman who happens to be a decent athlete with good hands is definitely and at all times better than a wicketkeeper who averages 30.

play
2:32

'I want the batsmen to know that if they leave the crease, they're gone'

England keeper Sarah Taylor talks about the skills that make her the force she is

Krishnaswamy: The Wriddhiman Saha-Rishabh Pant question kind of shows where the debate stands right now. India don't think Pant is a good enough keeper yet to keep to Ashwin and Jadeja on Indian pitches. They're fine with him keeping outside Asia, standing back mostly, for the extra runs he potentially brings.

Monga: It is actually a very sound strategy in the absence of data, but why doesn't cricket measure it?

Krishnaswamy: And very often, the workload on these superb batsmen who can also keep makes them average 38 when they could average 45. Except AB de Villiers, who has kept quite a lot with no real drop in batting output.

Ghosh: Here's a brilliant masterclass on keeping by Ben Foakes, who, btw, is one of the best three wicketkeepers Sarah Taylor chose from the current lot of men's and women's cricketers, alongside MS Dhoni and Amy Jones.

Krishnaswamy: Went through that Foakes masterclass, and looking at the workload - even just the mental workload, before we come to the physical - that this entails every single ball, no wonder batsmen usually average much less when they're also keeping. But I think with more keeping coaches coming in, batsmen-athletes are going to become better batsmen-keepers.

Monga: But is that a message that is trickling down? Are kids in the maidans aiming to be the best keepers they can be? Are we at risk of an art slowly dying out?

Krishnaswamy: In time, the figure of the specialist keeper, who's just a natural, with beautiful hands, might fade away, unless that keeper also happens to be really good with the bat.

Are there any keepers right now who don't always keep?

Monga: I would split the duties if both Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler were playing.

Krishnaswamy: Sri Lanka could easily do that with Kusal Perera and Niroshan Dickwella in Tests - or even back-to-back ODIs. Make one keep in one innings or limited-overs game, the other in the next one.

Monga: Also, a small nod to Sri Lanka for opening with wicketkeepers, trying to make the most of that player. Romesh Kaluwitharana, of course, was something else.

Krishnaswamy: Yup. Suddenly you had a guy whose wicket wasn't that big a deal if it fell early in trying to slog, and a guy like Hashan Tillakaratne or Roshan Mahanama at No. 7. Kaluwitharana was the Sunil Narine of his day, in a weird way.

Monga: A possibly revolutionary question. Again, Zaltzman originally brought this up: In T20s, you don't really need eight or nine people who can bat. So if you have decent allrounders in your team (I am looking at West Indies), is it not worth going for an artist of a wicketkeeeper who will manufacture that extra stumping for you?

Ghosh: Why is a wicketkeeper-batter not considered an allrounder anyway? Who made bowling a superior skill to keeping - for a bowler who can bat or vice versa to be called an allrounder?

Monga: Well, that is the thing. Wicketkeeping has always been underestimated as a part of the game. There is no measure for their impact. And is that also why wicketkeeping as an art has not evolved that much?

Krishnaswamy: Possible. But which directions do you think it could still evolve in?

Monga: MS Dhoni's stumpings - when he pulls them off without any give in the arms - are a fair-dinkum evolution.

Krishnaswamy: I wonder if the next generation that grew up watching him will now start doing it. And we'll get more and more people treasuring those fractions of seconds saved by not giving with the ball.

Monga: And the way he sticks his leg out. Or keeps the legs together for half-volleys. No points for clean collections, but points for runs saved only.

Krishnaswamy: Yup. Typical Dhoni pragmatism.

Monga: Maybe the lack of specialist wicketkeeping coaches also slows evolution. England have one at times, but that is all.

Ghosh: Since late 2017, India women have had a couple of camps under Kiran More.

Krishnaswamy: Did you get a sense of the impact from the players you talked to?

Ghosh: At the 2018 T20 World Cup and the one in Australia this year, the most wicketkeeping dismissals were by an Indian - the young Taniya Bhatia, who has emerged as the specialist first-choice keeper in the Indian side. Her dismissal of Meg Lanning in the tournament opener this year was a key strike. First match of the World Cup against hosts Australia, snaffle a feather off the captain - boom! off you go, on the road to your maiden run to a T20 WC final.

Krishnaswamy: Great example. Slightly related note - Poonam Yadav's lack of pace must make her a really difficult bowler to keep to. If you're like Rishabh Pant, who has been guilty of collecting the ball before it passes the stumps, and losing stumpings for that reason, you'll have real difficulties keeping to Poonam.

Ghosh: The exaggerated flight she offers is an even greater challenge, I'd imagine. Whether you're going for the full or the half-squat, one, you need to keep a steady head and not tilt it too much to get a view of the release. In Poonam's case, I believe that's compounded even further as it may be slightly more difficult to track the trajectory of her ball.

Monga: And because you don't have that much pace in women's cricket, the demand - both physical and technical - on wicketkeepers is more.

Krishnaswamy: You'll have to stay down longer, I would guess.

Ghosh: That's right.

Bhatia is cast in the Sarah Taylor mould, and I'm sure she received a tip or two during England's tour of India last year.

Krishnaswamy: I wonder if the first wave of women coaching not just women's but also men's teams could be wicketkeeping coaches.

Monga: Yeah. Sarah Taylor coaching the next England men's Test keeper. Standing up to the quicks is an innovation I am happy to see. Then there is collecting throws in front of the stumps. And clever deflections. Basically being more aware of - and sometimes facilitating - direct hits.

Krishnaswamy: Whenever this happens, the medium-fast bowler also starts bowling differently, invariably. More stump-to-stump, hardly any bouncers. Taylor stands up to the quicks like it's what she always does.

Monga: What makes her so good? I have seen she prefers not to talk about her skill and art that much.

Ghosh: Alyssa Healy also stands up a lot - to Megan Schutt and Nicola Carey and Delissa Kimmince. And Bhatia - to Shikha Pandey, mostly. But what I find interesting about Taylor standing up to bowlers and Healy's approach is the vertical movement. Healy, irrespective of where she is standing or what type of bowler she is keeping to, mostly goes for the full squat.

Taylor, on the other hand, goes from a semi-upright position to slightly lower than a half-squat.

Krishnaswamy: Oh yeah, the difference in method is so clear to see.

Ghosh: Here she is talking to us at the Wankhede last year.

Krishnaswamy: Interesting observation that she relies on her hands more than her footwork.

Monga: Dhoni is all hands too. The classic Australian way of footwork and collecting by the hip is not mandatory now.

Krishnaswamy: Yeah. The Ian Healy stepping-past-the-line-and-taking-it-on-the-inside method.

Monga: Always on the inside hip. Was it overrated? I don't know. But it was good to watch.

Krishnaswamy: Yup. And his stumpings were poetry.

Ghosh: Like here.

Krishnaswamy: Wow. That one that spun from just outside leg stump must have been so hard, since it spun across the batsman and he must have been blindsided briefly. Made it look so easy.

Ghosh: This is also dope on wicketkeeping from the Healys.

Krishnaswamy: That other-end run-out from Alyssa Healy is superb - spin, throw, all in one motion. And a great observation from her on how wearing helmets all the time changes the job too.

Ghosh: Interesting discussion there on keepers catching the high ball. I feel it can be a difficult thing to do anyway, whether or not you have your gloves on. When the ball is up in the air, it's swirling, and in windy conditions it can be even more challenging. Surely all wicketkeepers have been given the look by the bowler for missing a high catch. It's probably a bit unfair to expect them to catch it every time just because they have additional gear on them.

Monga: True. So much of wicketkeeping is taken for granted, it is not funny.

Monga: We have spoken of the evolution of the role, but evolution in the art itself is difficult - perhaps too subtle. Shall we end with who you think are the most important one or two wicketkeepers in the history of keeping?

Krishnaswamy: Let's see. Sammy Carter, for making the crouch the favoured method worldwide; Les Ames, for being a decades-ahead-of-his-time precursor to the typical keeper of today; and Rahul Dravid, for showing what the lower end of the keeping-skills spectrum is to be a regular keeper in limited-overs cricket.

Monga: That does sum it up. I'd add Dhoni for all the tricks he has taught others. I see Mohammad Shahzad and Jos Buttler trying to be like him. He appeals to keepers. But also, we can never forget the Taylors and the Healys for the pure joy of it.

Krishnaswamy: Taylor, in a few years' time, for breaking the glass ceiling for women's coaches in all cricket, maybe.

Ghosh: The one thing we haven't mentioned yet is how the keeper is also expected to be in the ear of the batter. It's sort of a specialist duty assigned to them. Taylor, by her own admission, wasn't the chatty type, but her predecessor, Jane Smit, one of the finest keepers in women's cricket history, seems to have been one.

Krishnaswamy: The cheekiness of keepers would merit another long chat.

Ghosh: Agreed.

Monga: Let's end it there. Although I feel like there's still so much about keeping to be discussed. Another time.

More Rabbit Holes