An art that has become as valuable as any other in any format of the game is the ability of a wicket-keeper – and a good one at that – to show some skills with the bat, and contribute to the team’s total. While in T20 cricket, every batsman is as important as the other and is expected to hit the ball right from the word go, in Test matches, the skills required of them revolve around patience, and the ability to spend some time at the crease. To do that after having kept wickets for close to 90 overs requires extreme levels of fitness and the hunger to score runs for the team.
In this context, amongst the current crop of cricketers, there have been certain wicket-keeper batsmen who have stepped up whenever the team has asked them to and have scored runs apart from their usual jobs of keeping wickets and keeping them well. There was a time when the likes of Adam Gilchrist, Mark Boucher, Moin Khan, Alec Stewart and Adam Parore played in the same era.
However, since the departure of these cricketers, teams have struggled with finding a stable option for the aforementioned role. Names have been thrown around, players have been tested, but with the exception of MS Dhoni none of them could withstand the test of time. In recent past, although, few cricketers have emerged who, through their performances over the past couple of seasons or so, have claimed a definite stake for the position of a wicketkeeper-batsman.
In this piece, we enumerate five such names who have become permanent members of their respective Test sides and have established themselves as viable batting options for their teams apart from their skills behind the stumps.
#5 Wriddhiman Saha (India)
For a wicketkeeper in India to actually make it out of MS Dhoni’s shadows and claim a spot for himself in the national side is an achievement in itself. That it came after the former’s retirement from Tests is a different thing. What matters is the fact that when the opportunity came, Saha was ready to grab it with both hands.
Post the culmination of the year 2014, the Bengal-born batsman was selected as the first choice keeper ahead of other local stalwarts like Parthiv Patel and Naman Ojha. In the first ten innings that he played post-Dhoni’s retirement, Saha got two fifties to his name and a couple of 30s as well.
Batting at No. 6, in line with Virat Kohli’s philosophy of playing five specialist bowlers, Saha played the role of a lower-order batsman to some amount of success, with his vital contributions in testing situations. His moment of reckoning, however, came during the recently-concluded Test series against the West Indies, wherein he scored his maiden Test hundred, in the third Test in St. Lucia, and thereby further solidified his position in the team.
Although his record of 572 runs from 15 Tests at 27.23 borders on mediocrity, they are only expected to get better as Saha plays more and more for India.
#4 Quinton de Kock (South Africa)
Since the unfortunate, injury-forced retirement of Mark Boucher, South Africa’s most successful wicketkeeper, the side has struggled to find a suitable replacement for the right-handed batsman, someone who could be clinical behind the stumps as well as potent enough with the bat. Several cricketers, including South Africa's No. 1 batsman across formats, AB de Villiers, were trusted with the responsibility, but none of them could excel in one area without compromising on the other.
However, the ascent of 2013 saw a young left-handed batsman emerge, who immediately made a name for himself through a hat-trick of ODI centuries (135, 106, 101) against India at home. Quinton de Kock’s raw talent, mixed with his impeccable skills with the bat, all at the ripe young age of 23 made him one of the prodigies of South Africa cricket.
Over the course of the next three years, the left-handed top-order batsman scored runs all over the world in limited-overs cricket, including a century each in the UAE, Sri Lanka and Australia, and two in India, and deservedly, received his Test call-up. His first ten Test innings had two half-centuries and two 30s to his name, but it was during South Africa's last Test series – against England in 2015-16 – that de Kock established himself as a mainstay in the setup through a belligerent 129* in Centurion.
Overall, the southpaw has 440 runs from 13 Test innings, having played 9 Tests, with 1 century and 2 fifties, and he has scored those runs at a healthy average of 44.00.
#3 Sarfraz Ahmed (Pakistan)
Pakistan’s search for a wicketkeeper-batsman had taken them through several talented batsmen, who somehow, could translate themselves to capable wicketkeepers, or vice versa. They had the Akmals – all three of them – in Kamran, Umar, Adnan, with a considerable amount of success, but none of them could be detrimental to the team’s long-term success.
Despite having a lean start to his Test career – his first eight innings since his debut in 2010, that came over a span of three years, had no score of 50 or more - Sarfraz changed gears and his fortunes since the advent of 2014 and started scoring runs on a consistent basis for Pakistan, thereby putting a full stop to their search for a wicketkeeper-batsman. In 2014 alone, the right-handed batsman scored three centuries and three fifties, with all of them being scored on Asian soil (the UAE and Sri Lanka).
Over past couple of years as well, the middle-order batsman has become a vital cog for Pakistan in their batting line-up and has impressed one and all with his ability to adapt to different conditions and play accordingly. He has five scores of 50 or more in Sri Lanka and during the ongoing tour of England, he was quite decent with his hat-trick of 40s down the order.
In total, the Pakistani has scored 1489 runs from 44 innings in 25 Tests with 3 hundreds and 7 fifties, at an average of 43.79. His skills behind the stumps have been immaculate as well, the example of which was shown during the England Tests, where he kept considerably well to the moving balls being bowled by Mohammad Amir and company.
#2 Jonny Bairstow (England)
The relationship between England and wicketkeepers has been a murky one, to be honest. Alec Stewart was the last recognised keeper that England had, who played a considerable amount of matches doing well with the bat, as well as, behind the stumps. Matt Prior seemed to be his successor for a period of seven years or so, but his dwindling form with the bat post the Ashes debacle of 2013-14 in Australia meant that England were forced to move on.
In their new quest, they stumbled upon a gritty right-handed batsman who had the ability to adjust his game according to the conditions and the match situations. What they have tried to do since then, is convert him from a batsman who can keep, to a proper wicketkeeper-batsman.
While it cannot be said that they have been largely successful in their pursuit, the testimony to which was Bairstow’s rather ordinary performance behind the wickets during the Test series against Sri Lanka, his extraordinary form with the bat has overshadowed his perceived failures with the gloves.
1957 runs from 31 Tests at an average of 41.67 with 3 centuries and 10 fifties – 7 of which have come in 2016 – qualify him as a top-notch middle-order batsman, given his relatively young age of 26 and a career that is only expected to flourish from here. Knocks of 140, 167*, 58, 83, 55 and 81 this summer have made it a season to remember for Bairstow and one would expect him to carry the form to India, which is expected to be England’s next big Test assignment.
#1 BJ Watling (New Zealand)
In all honesty, the sole batsman who has filled the shoes of an outgoing legend in the best possible manner has been New Zealand’s BJ Watling. Although he had been sharing the burden of wicketkeeping since the time Brendon McCullum gave up the gloves, but even after the latter’s departure, Watling has remained an integral part of the squad, the testimony to which have been his knocks of 107 and 83* against Zimbabwe during the recently-concluded Test series.
Overall, Watling has 2282 runs from 41 Tests at 40.03 with 6 Test hundreds and 12 fifties. Ironically, one of his most memorable knocks in Test cricket – his 124 vs India in Wellington – was overshadowed by his predecessor’s majestic 302, that helped NZ fightback from a first innings deficit and pull out one of the most remarkable comebacks in modern day cricket. Watling has scored hundreds against Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, India, England and Bangladesh, and has scored them in foreign conditions as well.
The 31-year-old has, for quite some time now, put to rest NZ’s quest for a wicketkeeper-batsman, and if persisted with, which is a clear probability, can go on to become one of the better Newz Zealand batsmen to have graced the game.