There was a time when the duty of the wicketkeeper was to keep wicket, and perhaps occasionally contribute with the bat, but that was more than a couple of decades ago. Now, the rules of the game have changed, and Australia's latest incumbent to the role, Matthew Wade, has learnt the new requirements of his job description pretty quickly, becoming only the sixth wicketkeeper from the country to score a Test century. He achieved it in only his third Test, which is pretty impressive considering that one of his predecessors, Wally Grout, played 51 Tests and only managed a highest of 74 (though there's no doubting his quality behind the stumps).
Grout's was an age when a wicketkeeper's skills behind the stumps was almost all that counted - his batting ability was only a bonus. Not any longer, though. Andy Flower was perhaps the first wicketkeeper who could command his place in any team as a batsman alone, though Adam Gilchrist took most of the credit for that with his astonishingly free-spirited batting at No. 7 in a strong Australian side. That redefined the role of a wicketkeeper, and that's perhaps one of the biggest changes seen in Test cricket over the last few decades.
The table below lists decade-wise averages of wicketkeepers since 1950, and it's clear that since 2000 the numbers have changed dramatically: from an average that used to hover in the mid-20s, it has shot up to more than 30 over the last decade. Compared to the 1950s, the batting average of wicketkeepers has jumped up by 53%. During the same period, the averages for openers went up by about 10.5% (33.42 to 36.90), for all top-order batsmen by about 18% (32.42 to 38.34) and for all tailenders by about 11% (14.05 to 15.63). (Top-order defined as batsmen in positions 1 to 7, and tailenders as positions 8 to 11.) In each of those cases, the increase in averages is less than 20%, while for wicketkeepers the rise is more than 50% - that expresses the change pretty eloquently. In the 1950s, there were ten centuries for wicketkeepers in 505 innings - an average of one every 50.5 innings; since 2000, it has gone up to 79 in 1806 innings - that's one every 23 innings.
|Before 2000||1480||94,251||24.02||91/ 433|
|Since 2000||562||50,239||31.55||79/ 253|
The team-wise batting stats for wicketkeepers since 2000 has two teams with 42-plus averages, followed by a huge gap, and then the rest. Thanks to Flower and Gilchrist, Zimbabwe and Australia are way ahead of the rest of the sides.
During this period, Zimbabwe have had only three wicketkeepers - Flower, Tatenda Taibu and Regis Chakabva (who has played just one Test). Flower had outstanding stats in the 23 Tests he played during this period, averaging more than 73 in 20 Tests. For Australia, Brad Haddin has been the other keeper who has played plenty of Tests apart from Gilchrist, and he hasn't done badly either with the bat, averaging almost 36 in 43 Tests. And that's despite struggling in his last four series, in which he managed only two half-centuries in 17 innings. Wade has begun well too, though the challenge will be to maintain that average of almost 40. In fact, Australia's batting average for their wicketkeepers since Gilchrist's retirement is 35.88, which is second among all teams - only England's average of 40.66 is higher.
After those two teams, there are six bunched together with averages between 29 and 33. England's average is boosted by Matt Prior's prolific form - he averages more than 43 in 52 Tests. That's made up for the lack of contributions from Geraint Jones and Chris Read, who played 48 Tests between them for a combined average of 23.34. Sri Lanka's overall average has fallen since Kumar Sangakkara decided to give up wicketkeeping in Tests (though his stats as a specialist batsman completely justifies that move). Prasanna Jayawardene, his replacement, didn't contribute a whole lot as a batsman in his early days, but has shown impressive skill and resolve with the bat in the last 18 months.
India have used more wicketkeepers than any other team, mainly because they couldn't make up their minds in the early 2000s, but since MS Dhoni took over he hasn't had much competition. Dhoni's overall batting numbers are reasonably good too, with an average of more than 37 in 67 Tests.
At the bottom of that group of six teams is South Africa, with one wicketkeeper playing almost all their matches during this period. Mark Boucher is far and away the most successful wicketkeeper in terms of dismissals, but his batting stats are slightly disappointing - only two centuries in 122 Tests, and an average of 30.22, is probably a little lesser than what Boucher should have achieved given his ability.
|Team||Players||Tests||Runs||Average||Strike rate||100s/ 50s|
|Sri Lanka||6||116||5590||33.07||52.12||11/ 18|
|New Zealand||7||95||4123||30.54||50.25||7/ 18|
|South Africa||3||128||4813||29.34||50.58||2/ 32|
|West Indies||6||127||4279||22.88||48.60||4/ 23|
And finally, here's a look at the wicketkeepers with the best batting averages (with a qualification of 2000 runs in the matches in which they kept wicket). Not surprisingly, most of the top names belong to the post-2000 era. The one exception among the top eight is England's Les Ames, who scored eight hundreds in 44 Tests as wicketkeeper, and averaged 43.40. He played in the 1930s, when the overall average of wicketkeepers was 25.67, which offers a good indication of how much better he was than the others in his era. In that decade, Ames scored 2387 runs; no other wicketkeeper scored more than 820.
|Andy Flower||55||4404||53.70||12/ 23|
|Adam Gilchrist||96||5570||47.60||17/ 26|
|Les Ames||44||2387||43.40||8/ 7|
|Matt Prior||52||2758||43.09||6/ 19|
|Kumar Sangakkara||48||3117||40.48||7/ 11|
|MS Dhoni||67||3509||37.32||5/ 24|
|Brad Haddin||43||2257||35.82||3/ 10|
|Alec Stewart||82||4540||34.92||6/ 23|
|Brendon McCullum||51||2782||34.77||5/ 15|
|Alan Knott||95||4389||32.75||5/ 30|
|Jeff Dujon||79||3146||31.46||5/ 16|
|Farokh Engineer||46||2611||31.08||2/ 16|
Only includes matches in which they played as a wicketkeeper.
S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo. Follow him on Twitter