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Are IPL teams doing anything to find MS Dhoni's successor for the wicketkeeper role?

Mohammad Kaif speaks about how the IPL teams are missing out on the opportunity to groom a wicketkeeper-batsman for the future.

KL Rahul and Deepak Hooda
KL Rahul (R), RCB’s stop-gap wicketkeeper in IPL 2016

It is the final of the 2016 IPL, and Sunrisers Hyderabad are going great guns. David Warner has got his team off to yet another flier, and the Royal Challengers Bangalore bowlers are once again under the pump. It is just the ninth over of the innings, and SRH have already put up 87 runs on the board.

Yuzvendra Chahal is the bowler, and a rampaging Warner is looking to find the boundary off virtually every ball. But on the last delivery of the over, he appears to nick a short-ish ball behind. KL Rahul, standing right up to the stumps, seems to be in perfect position to pouch the  ball and send the dangerman back to the pavilion.

But he fails to collect the ball, and the batsmen run a single. The umpire signals a bye, but replays clearly show that Warner had nicked it.

Warner, batting on 52 at the time, went on to add 17 more runs to his tally before getting out at 69. It could've been much worse too; on his day, Warner may well have added another 50 blazing runs after getting a life like that.

The match was ultimately decided by a small margin; RCB would end up losing the match by just eight runs. In hindsight, Rahul's moment didn't have any bearing on the result of the final, because the umpire would likely have given it not out even if Rahul had pouched the ball.

But what if the umpire hadn't made that mistake? What if he had correctly credited that single to the batsman? It would've meant that Rahul had dropped the second best batsman of the tournament, a drop that cost his team 17 runs – which was greater than SRH's ultimate margin of victory.

In short, it would've been the turning point that sealed RCB's fate.

That's the problem with having a stop-gap wicketkeeper. Not only are the half-chances missed, sometimes even regulation catches are spilled which causes a lot of damage to the team. And can anyone blame the part-time keeper? He isn't used to standing behind the stumps, so you can't expect him to be 100% error-free.

IPL teams are increasingly relying on part-time wicketkeepers

A tendency has developed among many teams in the IPL to include a part-time keeper in the XI, in order to get an extra batting or bowling option. Rahul, an excellent top order batsman for RCB, was not the only non-regular keeper asked to don the gloves. Even Kolkata Knight Riders have been making do with Robin Uthappa for a while, and Mumbai Indians have entrusted wicketkeeping duties to Ambati Rayudu on more than one occasion.

SRH, Gujarat Lions, Kings XI Punjab and Rising Pune Supergiants used specialist wicketkeepers throughout the tournament – they had Naman Ojha, Dinesh Karthik, Wriddhiman Saha and MS Dhoni respectively to rely on. But the other teams frequently changed their wicketkeeping resource.

Delhi Daredevils, who had as many as four wicketkeepers in the XI (Quinton de Kock, Rishabh Pant, Sanju Samson and Sam Billings), exercised all their options whenever De Kock was not in the team. Mumbai Indians didn't opt for Rayudu as a wicketkeeper this season (because they had Jos Buttler and Parthiv Patel at their disposal), but they have gone that route in the past. RCB and KKR, as already stated, used part-timers for practically the whole tournament.

Even the specialist keepers, the ones who you'd expect to be considered as Dhoni's replacements in the future, didn't exactly set the tournament alight with their batting. Karthik scored three 50s, yes, but he averaged only 25 at a strike rate of less than 130 through the tournament. Saha averaged even less – 24 – while Ojha had a nightmare season with the bat, scoring just 136 runs at less than a run-a-ball. Patel was almost equally bad, doing practically nothing of note apart from the 81 he scored against Kings XI Punjab.

What does all this mean though? Is it a big deal at all if teams choose to strengthen their batting or bowling by picking a part-time wicketkeeper? To my mind, it IS a big deal – for more reasons than one.

The chances missed by a part-timer can come back to haunt the team

The message that comes out loud and clear through teams' reliance on non-specialists is that they are reluctant to invest time and money into grooming an Indian keeper. The temptation of having that extra batsman or bowler in the XI is strong enough to make captains and coaches ignore the importance of a specialist glovesman.

That, as I mentioned in the Warner example above, can lead to potentially disastrous situations over which the players themselves have little control. You can never tell when the next half-chance comes your way, or when a dropped catch will end up costing you a lot – it can happen in a meaningless league game, or in the final. But the risk of it happening in a final is too great, and  cannot be ignored.

More importantly, however, the insistence on part-timers can lead to long-term ramifications for the Indian national team.

Dhoni is a legend, but are we doing anything to find his replacement?

We should consider ourselves blessed to have had MS Dhoni donning the wicketkeepers' gloves for more than a decade. Dhoni is a once-in-a-lifetime cricketer; his combination of smartness, talent and power is rare to find, and not just in India.

Dhoni is a master with the gloves, sneaking out catches and stumpings when the batsmen least expect it. His quickness and incredible hand-eye coordination enable him to bamboozle the most experienced of batsmen, and his near-telepathic understanding with bowlers – especially Ravichandran Ashwin – has won India numerous matches.

But that's not even his biggest strength. Dhoni's ability with the bat is legendary; they don't call him the greatest finisher of all time for nothing. We've lost count of how many times he has taken India over the line with his terrific power hitting, and his ability to soak up the pressure is second to none.

As good as Dhoni is though, he is not immortal. He has already retired from the Test team, and it's anybody's guess how much longer he will continue in the limited overs formats.

So the big question is: after Dhoni, who?

Wriddhiman Saha has been signed up as Dhoni's replacement in the Test squad. While his keeping is quite safe, he hasn't fully established his credentials as a batsman yet.  Besides, Saha is already 31; even if he becomes a permanent member of the team in all formats, his longevity will always be under question.

The disconcerting thing is that apart from Saha, there aren't too many talented options who can immediately take up Dhoni's mantle when he retires. The likes of Sanju Samson and Rishabh Pant aren't being given enough exposure at the biggest stages, while the more experienced Robin Uthappa, Dinesh Karthik and Parthiv Patel haven't convinced anyone of their long-term potential.

Part-time wicketkeepers will never cut it at the Test level

When I played for India, Sourav Ganguly had tried the experiment of having Rahul Dravid keep wickets in ODIs, which gave the skipper the option of playing Yuvraj and me at the No. 6 and No. 7 positions respectively. The experiment worked reasonably well, most notably in that famous NatWest final in 2002.

The experiment didn't last long though, and significantly, it was never tried in Tests. After Dravid went back to his role as a specialist batsman, the likes of Parthiv Patel and Dinesh Karthik were given a chance to prove themselves – a chance they never made full use of.

The arrival of Dhoni solved all of India's wicketkeeping problems, and as I said above, we should all thank our lucky stars for that. But the big worry now is that the people in leadership positions in Indian cricket – the selectors, the coaches, the respective state captains, even Kohli himself – aren't showing the vision to prepare for life without Dhoni.

Limited overs cricket and Test cricket are two very different ball games – both literally and figuratively. What works in T20 is not guaranteed to succeed at the Test level, as we all know, and even the Dravid experiment was never extended to Tests.

Havinh a part-time wicketkeeper won’t cut it in Test cricket. The cost of a single missed catch or stumping is too great, and entire careers could be at stake because of a single mistake committed by a player who isn’t even doing his regular job. And that is precisely why the tendency to rely on part-time wicketkeepers in T20 cricket cannot be a good omen for India's long-term Test future.

We need to find Dhoni's successor, and we need to find him now. Fielding KL Rahul and Robin Uthappa as wicketkeepers is not going to help us achieve that.

This article has also been published on Mohammad Kaif's blog here.

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