Rise of the Wicket-Keeper Batsman: The Gilly Void might just be filled
Until a decade or so back, a wicket keeper’s job was considered a specialist job and he was expected to do that properly. Not contributing much in other departments of the game didn’t mean much of a difference. The names of the bygone era who kept wickets like Nayan Mongia, Ian Healy, Jack Russell and Syed Kirmani, Jeff Dujon etc. before them couldn’t stake a claim to be great batsmen in any way. Just the odd hundred and the sparkling 50 here and there were all that they could muster.
Then one name changed all that. He gave a whole new dimension to the word ‘wicket keeper’ and he invented the coinage wicket keeper – batsman. Thanks to him, wicketkeepers around the world gained in respect and youngsters began to aspire to become wicketkeepers. He was such an inspirational hero. It was none other than Adam Gilchrist. But, the reason why he was hailed as a super star was not because of his keeping alone. There have been obviously far more brilliant wicketkeepers than Gilchrist in the long history of the game. But, the area where Gilchrist made such a high mark was as an aggressive batsman down the order in Tests and as an opener in the ODIs.
‘Devastating’ was one word that would describe Gilchrist’s batting aptly. He literally tore apart attacks with his rasping cuts, pulls and slogs over the ropes. That, he did all this with timing, finesse and a touch of class made matters all the more dreadful for his opponents. The Aussie domination in the early part of the new millennium was majorly due to this man. He made the big occasions his own and he singlehandedly changed the profile of the wicket-keeper in cricketing history.
Before him, wicketkeepers were looked at as poor souls who had to stand all day long and dive and thrust at the ball tirelessly. But after his glorious entry as an aggressive batsman and as a more than capable wicketkeeper, this job was no longer considered as low-key. After Gilly’s entry, the wicketkeeper was expected to bat aggressively, be actively involved in the decision making process and also obviously keep wickets with distinction. Just take a look at the names that cropped up around the world after Gilly’s entry.
M.S.Dhoni, Brendon McCullum, Matt Prior, Craig Kieswetter, Dinesh Karthik, Parthiv Patel, Kamran Akmal etc. One common link with all these names is that they are highly capable and aggressive batsmen. The Gilly effect at work indeed! Each of the aforementioned players can create high impact as a pure batsmen alone on a given day. That M.S.Dhoni raised the profile of a wicketkeeper to unimaginably lofty heights with his creative captaincy, marketing muscle, mass following and outstanding success ratio is a different matter altogether.
Let’s focus on the void that Gilly created after he retired from the game, particularly in Tests. In the ODIs, we have an influx of T20 specialists who have successfully recreated the Gilly effect to a certain extent. But in Tests, Gilly could lead a rearguard action, set the pace in the 2nd innings when the Aussies needed to set a target and also increase the lead in the 1st innings by indulging in sheer bludgeoning.
After his retirement, that effect was distinctly missing in any Test team around the world. M.S.Dhoni can hardly be considered as a quality Test batsman. He can tear apart attacks on flat tracks and is moreover a natural ODI player with gentle nudges, quick running and slogs dominating his style of play. Brendon McCullum and Kamran Akmal are too inconsistent and can be considered mavericks. On their day, they can hog the limelight and days when things don’t go their way, they go out with a whimper. Dinesh Karthik and Parthiv Patel are two of the most unfortunate cricketers in history because they are fighting for the very same place occupied by India’s captain supremo MSD. So these two men haven’t had an extended run by any means.
But of late, if there is one name that is making Gilly proud and has helped in bringing back some memories him in Tests, it has got to be 29 yr old English Test keeper Matt Prior. He is hardly a permanent member in the ODI team where Kieswetter is the mainstay. So we have two English wicket keepers who are aspiring to create the kind of impact that the Aussie genius had.
Prior in particular has been very impressive with his batting, has made crucial 100s regularly (6 100s in 44 Tests with quite a few of them in crucial situations), has formed critical partnerships with his lower order mates like Broad and Swann and also set the tempo on many occasions in both innings of a match by smashing some quick runs in pursuit of a big comfortable lead.
Prior started off with a whirlwind century on debut, 126* against the West Indies at Lord’s. He became the first English ‘keeper to score a 100 on debut and not surprisingly has the best Test average for an English ‘keeper by a mile at close to 45. During India’s tour in 2007, Prior had a lot of issues with his ‘keeping and sledging and he was eventually dropped. But his batting talent was never in question. In the 2009 Ashes triumph at home, he made 262 runs with many quick fire 50s, boasting an overall strike rate of 82. In the 2010-11 triumph in Australia, Prior got off to a poor start in the first 3 Tests but finished off in style with an 85 and a quick fire 118 in the final Test
He has been a major factor in England’s rise to the top in Tests and his exploits in the recently concluded Lords’ test against India only served as a reminder to the kind of utility that Prior has. Two contrasting knocks in the same test match, his 2nd innings century in particular spoke volumes about his ability as he came in when England were under severe pressure with India firmly on top. He bided his time and then settled into a great rhythm along with Broad and gave the Poms a big lead. With this century, he has now scored 3 100s in his last 5 Tests.
That he can play the big shots too is where the comparisons with Gilly become more apt. But, Prior has a long way to go before he can be considered a true protégé to the Gilchrist brand of wicketkeeper – batsman. But he is getting there and if Prior can maintain this level of impact, then he can certainly join Gilly at the top of the wicketkeepers totem pole.