Scenes from Modern Wicketkeeping
The first time I heard it, I thought I was mishearing. It was Durham, there was a decent crowd on the second day, enjoying themselves, throwing out the odd chant. I was standing on the balcony on the roof of the press box with the cameramen. Behind me a generator was humming, and it was a bit windy. But there it was again.
I thought I was making up noises that didn't exist. But there it was again. And again. And again.
On day three I brought along ESPNcricinfo's senior correspondent George Dobell, just to make sure it wasn't only me. We couldn't remember hearing a thud like that. We had a combined cricket-watching age of well over 70 and this was new.
The thud was the wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow collecting the ball, the thud of a new age.
In May 2015, during the final Test of England's series in West Indies, in Barbados, Jos Buttler came in at No. 8 in the second innings. England were 62 for 6, a lead of 130. Having successfully reviewed an out decision, Buttler began scoring with an effortlessly lofted six. He looked calm and assured; England were neither. His partner Ben Stokes fell, and in the next 18 balls, so did Chris Jordan and Stuart Broad. Buttler couldn't afford a small not-out like he had done in England's first-innings collapse; he had to go.
Over the next three overs, Buttler took charge, striking five boundaries. The lead was hopping up towards 200. James Anderson only had to survive and Buttler would play the innings that ultimately won the match. Anderson didn't and his wicket left the game on edge.
West Indies were set 192, more than they managed in the first innings and now on an older pitch. They were four down needing 105 more. Jermaine Blackwood was new to the crease, on 4 off 18 balls. Earlier in the series he had made a hundred, and he had got close to one in the first innings here. His career was still young, but already it was evident he was a fast scorer and the sort of man who could demolish a small chase.
"Batting and bowling averages might be inadequate, but compared to how we measure wicketkeeping, they are light years ahead"
Joe Root was bowling and he kept it tight, the ball spinning for him. He built up pressure, and Blackwood was itching to explode. From round the wicket, Root pitched one on middle and leg. Blackwood came down, gave himself room and was beaten in flight and then by the turn. Buttler got a good sight of the ball. He saw Blackwood leave early. He had to be prepared for the ball to spin, as it had done for most of the Test. The problem was Buttler never looked ready for the ball to beat the bat. The only reason he got anywhere near it was because of his fast hands, but even then not quickly enough. Reprieved, Blackwood went on to make a match-winning, series-drawing, 47 not out.
Hampshire were playing Warwickshire in the 2012 CB40 final and it was tight. Warwickshire needed seven runs to win in the last over, bowled by Kabir Ali, with Chris Woakes and Ian Blackwell at the crease. There were a couple of singles, and then Ali bowled Blackwell. Neil Carter, the six-hitting machine, replaced him and got a boundary away off the fifth. A single would win it for Warwickshire, a dot would mean a tie and a win for Hampshire, for having lost fewer wickets.
Ali wasn't as quick as he once was, but he was still in the low 80s. For most current wicketkeepers it would have meant standing back, and if there was a play and miss, a quick roll at the stumps. Hampshire's wicketkeeper stood up to the stumps.
Ali bowled wide of off stump and very full, Carter tried to jam down on it but missed. Dust went everywhere, and out of the carnage the bails were off. Carter hadn't even left the crease yet. He then set off, thinking that the wicketkeeper must have missed it. He hadn't and he plucked the stumps out once Carter was outside the crease, just to make sure. But there was no appeal and no decision; there was no need for it. A dot and the game was won.
The wicketkeeper was Michael Bates, whose Twitter profile reads "Professional cricketer formerly of Hampshire and Somerset". Bates didn't play a single first-class match in 2016. He might well be one of the best wicketkeepers in the world, yet there is every chance he won't play first-class cricket again.
Two years earlier Bates had kept beautifully in a T20 final for Hampshire against Somerset. He was up at the stumps to Dominic Cork from the first over, missed no chances, and let no byes through. When Hampshire batted, he was listed at ten but wasn't needed. In the last over Hampshire needed eight to win, or seven to tie and win the title. Craig Kieswetter was keeping to Zander de Bruyn (another low-80s bowler). Earlier that day Kieswetter had made 71 from 59 balls; now in the last over he stood back and twice allowed byes to be stolen even as the ball went through to him. Hampshire tied the match and won the tournament. Another line in Bates' Twitter profile says he is now a "specialist wicketkeeping coach". In a different generation, he most probably would have been a Test hopeful.
A brief history of wicketkeeping
To quote Andy Zaltzman:
"The story of the No. 7 in Test cricket is, in essence, the story of the wicketkeeper as batsman. In the formative years of Test cricket, keepers seldom batted at seven. Now, they are mostly cast-iron sevens. A modern-day selector would be as likely to consider a Bert Strudwick or a George Duckworth - England's two leading wicketkeepers in the years after the First World War, who both batted most often at No. 11 - as they would to pick a fridge-freezer as an opening batsman."
We know cricket a certain way - the way we grew up on it, and the way it is now. And being that almost everyone reading this was born post-World War II, we see No. 7 batsmen as wicketkeepers in Tests. In early cricket, batting orders were a fluid concept; wet wickets often meant complete reshuffles and players were a lot more flexible in general. A No. 7 might have been a specialist batsman or an allrounder, or maybe a wicketkeeper with abnormal batting talent. And it was abnormal when a keeper could bat.
Les Ames was the first wicketkeeper picked for his batting, and realistically, the first great wicketkeeper-batsman (which is how Wisden referred to him in the obituary). He averaged 40.56 with the bat over 47 Tests; before World War II, the only other wicketkeeper who averaged 30 or more from at least 15 Tests was South Africa's Jock Cameron, and he averaged 30.21. The next best was Sammy Carter of Australia, who averaged 22. Ames was an outlier, and one who wouldn't be replicated for generations. Most wicketkeepers were picked because of their skill as wicketkeepers and nobody personified this more than Seymour Clark.
Clark was a train conductor who filled in for Somerset during the 1930 season. Until the age of 25, he had never played cricket, let alone kept wicket. This meant that he had no ingrained idea of how to play cricket. But he just happened to be the most naturally gifted self-taught wicketkeeper many had seen. Clark stood up to the stumps for all bowlers because he thought that's what you were supposed to do. After a few years of playing club cricket, he was asked to play for Somerset. At first he couldn't get time off work, and when he did, he played five games. In those games he batted nine times and never made a run. Not one. Even when opposition teams tried to make it easy for him, even with the brand new bat he purchased for his first-class career, not a single run. He was offered a full-time contract the following year but turned it down to go back to his railways job.
David Lemmon's 1984 book The Great Wicketkeepers is one of the few on the subject that isn't a biography with a pun for a name. Other than Ames - the chapter on whom was titled "The great allrounder" - and Jock Cameron, the early chapters are on players who couldn't bat: Jack Blackham (batting average: 15.68), Dick Lilley (20.52), Tiger Smith (8.69), Bert Strudwick (7.93), Bert Oldfield (22.65), George Duckworth (14.62), Don Tallon (17.13), Wally Grout (15.08) and Godfrey Evans (20.49).
"If this is the first age of the wicketkeeper-allrounders, why don't all cricket teams have full-time wicketkeeping coaches?"
Slowly, though, cricket was changing. In 1959-60, as England sought to replace Godfrey Evans, they took two wicketkeepers to the West Indies. One lost form, one fell sick, so an emergency replacement - Jim Parks - played in the last Test and smashed 101. Parks had played one Test in 1954, as a batsman, and he hadn't even kept wicket for Sussex until 1958. But those runs changed things. Many suggested that John Murray, Middlesex's wicketkeeper should be chosen ahead of him. Parks said he couldn't concentrate on his batting when keeping wicket as well, and Murray said he didn't like working on his batting. Parks would win the war, and the most important word came from Ted Dexter, who said he wasn't an expert at selecting wicketkeepers, and even the best sometimes dropped catches, so why not go with the better batsman?
Outside of England there had been others. Clyde Walcott was a wicketkeeper from his youth and eventually became West Indies' first choice. He averaged 40 with the bat while keeping over 15 Tests, until his back gave way and he became a specialist batsman (who averaged nearly 65 in 29 Tests). Walcott was like Ames, only now other players were coming through with higher averages. Budhi Kunderan and Farokh Engineer from India averaged 32 and 31 respectively; Imtiaz Ahmed from Pakistan, South Africa's John Waite, and Walcott's eventual replacement, Gerry Alexander, all averaged around 30. Thirty became the new normal and started pushing wicketkeepers up to No. 7.
Denis Lindsay destroyed Australia from No. 7 and 6 in 1966. Alan Knott seemed to combine quality batting - an average in the mid-30s - with quality wicketkeeping. It was around this time that the skill of wicketkeeping evolved. As bowlers bowled faster, and with spin in decline, you needed to not only bat a bit as a wicketkeeper but be relatively athletic. Diving became more common, as did the leap to claim a bouncer. Still, there remained room for a throwback.
After Knott, and during his Packer exile in the late '70s, it was Bob Taylor who took the gloves for England. With his upturned floppy hat, and often wearing short sleeves, Taylor was a specialist wicketkeeper of the pre-war kind, and he averaged 16.28 with the bat. In first-class cricket he had 1649 dismissals, the record then, as now, and probably forever. Taylor was a marvel, but instead of cricket embracing his skills, they went the other way. At the very same time he was playing Tests, England were trying a collection of wicketkeepers who could bat in ODIs.
Six years after Taylor's last Test, in 1984, came England's next big wicketkeeping moment: Jack Russell and Alec Stewart. Russell was more wicketkeeper than man. He was born to be a drummer in a prog-rock band, a wicketkeeper, an eccentric jug collector and little else. And his hands seemed bigger, and safer, than others. Up at the stumps he was a recreation of the great old-time wicketkeepers, retro before the word became mainstream.
Stewart was a more than handy wicketkeeper, and also a top batsman. Russell was two years into his career when Stewart arrived. For the first year of his career, Stewart played as a batsman only, but then he and Russell started to share the gloves. Like Walcott, Brendon McCullum and Kumar Sangakkara, Stewart wasn't anywhere near his best with the bat when he kept. In fact, in 82 Tests when he kept he managed six hundreds at an average of 34. In his 51 Tests as batsman alone, he made nine hundreds and averaged 46.
The interesting thing about Russell v Stewart was that Russell, who played all his Tests as wicketkeeper, only averaged seven runs fewer than Stewart when he kept wicket. But Russell's innings were plucky 30s, full of squidges, nudges, paddles and defence by any means. When Stewart made a score, even if it was a 70, it was with swagger and pomp; even the way he twirled his bat was a warning to the bowler. But as a great admirer and wicketkeeping contemporary of Russell, Darren Berry, points out: "Jack Russell was a far superior wicketkeeper to Alec Stewart. It's not negotiable, it's not even in question."
So England's last great wicketkeeper, Russell, finished his Test career in 1998. A year later Adam Gilchrist started his. Russell was a throwback to a day when keeping was a skill-based job; Gilchrist was the time-travelling robot god of wicketkeeping's future.
If there had been wicketkeepers who could bat before Gilchrist, there had been none who batted like him. Gilchrist walked out with kerosene and a box of matches and just had fun with it.
As Sangakkara would say: "He's done something very bad to the traditional wicketkeeper. He's ruined their careers." It wasn't just the number of runs, it was the speed and viciousness of them. They made people change how they thought about wicketkeepers. Wicketkeepers had been slowly improving their batting before him, but Gilchrist weaponised it. Forget the idiosyncratic 30s and stoic 70s, it was now time for nuclear hundreds.
Point, with gloves on
Ben Sanderson is bowling medium-fast over the wicket to the huge left-handed Chesney Hughes and Northamptonshire's Adam Rossington is standing up to the stumps, just outside off, waiting for the ball. The ball never comes through outside off. Instead, starting on a middle-and-leg line, it swings violently down leg side, Hughes loses his balance, pops out of his crease, and in an instant the bails are off. Rossington has pulled off one hell of a stumping.
Rossington's hands are almost a blur. From being completely out of position he has somehow managed to catch a ball with his head almost still to the off side of the batsman. It's wicketkeeping porn. The ECB vine of this stumping has nearly 100,000 plays. The description starts: "Fast hands Adam Rossington!" It's not perfect wicketkeeping. The result is. But the footwork is almost non-existent, so it's an excellent reflex stumping, not a great technical stumping.
If you watch what has captioned as "THE GREATEST STUMPING OF ALL TIME - DARREN BERRY....OFF PAUL REIFFEL" you will see a ball from Reiffel travelling on a middle-stump line before it swings down leg. Berry pulls off the sort of stumping that people like to share (one version of the video alone has over 260,000 views). But the difference between the two is in the technique.
The batsman in this instance is the right-handed David Boon, so it isn't exactly like for like, but like Hughes, he is a large gentleman. But when Berry takes the ball, his left foot is two feet outside leg stump, and he takes the ball almost in the centre of his body. He has moved that far despite the fact that Reiffel is quick and Boon is large, and he sees the ball come into his gloves right under his eyes. His hands aren't fast, they are just already in the right place. Clips of Russell doing the same exist, outside leg stump but taking the ball under his eyes or next to his hip.
Rossington, on the other hand, doesn't move his feet at all until he has taken the ball, and then he bunny-hops. His hands are at least a foot to the right of his body. That doesn't make what he does unremarkable, but his stumping is about his hands and reflexes, while Berry is relying on his technical skills. His, and Russell's, approach will work more often; Rossington's will look better but work fewer times.
Rossington averages 35 with the bat in first-class cricket and has a healthy strike rate of 137 in T20s, using that fast-hand speed. But he isn't like many of the modern wicketkeepers we see. He isn't an incredible athlete, a reminder of the day when skinfolds weren't that important. The modern wicketkeeper - Buttler, McCullum, Quinton de Kock, Dinesh Chandimal, AB de Villiers and Bairstow - is an incredible athlete in almost every way.
"If there had been wicketkeepers who could bat before Adam Gilchrist, there had been none who batted like him"
Last summer, in the Lord's Test against Pakistan after an edge went through the slips, Alex Hales and Joe Root from the cordon chased after it. Bairstow beat them both to the ball comfortably. He was in his pads, had started off metres behind them, and not only did he sprint past them, he also pulled off a great diving save on the boundary. Bairstow is the quickest player in the English team, and would be close to the fastest man in cricket right now, but he looks more at home saving the ball in the outfield than he does with the gloves on.
Like many other modern wicketkeepers he is a point fielder with gloves on. If that assessment needed further strengthening, recall the great athletic run-out Buttler pulled off in India recently. He was back in the Test side as a batsman and fielding at point.
If Jonty Rhodes were playing today, he would be an excellent chance of being a wicketkeeper. The modern style is to plant your feet and dive, almost exactly as they do at point. Modern wicketkeepers are diving as far as they ever have. It looks great, but nobody is saying they are not athletic.
"They are not natural glovemen," says Berry. "They are manufactured, they're stiff, and then they take these acrobatic catches, and it's because they are not in a good technical position, therefore everyone says, what a brilliant catch. But actually, with two steps to the right he could have caught that standing up."
It is a point Taylor, from an older generation, agrees with. "You don't wait till the last second when you have to dive for it. If you dive there is less chance of catching the ball, even if the batsman hasn't nicked it. If he nicks it, and you're anticipating and moving your feet, you're halfway there."
Those sideways shuffles are incredibly important for wicketkeeping. It may be mostly about the eyes and hands, but with good footwork, you take a lot of the luck out of the equation. And wicketkeeping footwork isn't like the footwork in any other part of the game - it is the difference between wicketkeeping having once been proactive and now being mostly reactive. It is an entirely different kind of fielding.
The thinking behind wicketkeeping isn't the same either. The way you take the ball is different, the reaction times are different, the view is different, and even though they are both watching for edges, the difference between one that goes to second slip and one to the wicketkeeper is huge. The concentration is entirely different to that required for fielding or even batting, as Parks identified all those years ago. And even if you improve your footwork and do all the things that should be second nature to a lifelong wicketkeeper, the biggest problem usually is that you don't just think that every ball could come to you. You have to honestly believe it will.
"The two mistakes keepers make standing up at the stumps is getting up too soon from the crouch position, and the second is that he anticipates that the batsman is going to hit the ball," says Taylor. "If you do that, it's fatal. Your mind is switched off for the power of a second.
"Those times a spinner is bowling, a tailender is batting, and he charges down the wicket, takes a huge yahoo, misses it, and it either goes for byes or hits the wicketkeeper on the pad, and by the time he scrambles to get the ball to take the bails off, the batsman is back? It was one of those two mistakes that caused it."
Modern wicketkeepers think as batsmen, or as fielders. De Villiers often doesn't even go up to the stumps after each ball, which might seem trivial, but it means that some run-outs will be missed. Their athleticism makes up for a lot but as it is, though current wicketkeepers may have spectacular successes, their failures are more frequent.
There could be a perfect sweet spot here, where some of these incredible athletes are matched with incredible wicketkeeping technique. Berry believes not enough is done to train the next crop of superior cricket athletes. "I have been coaching at state level, and now at private-school level, and what I don't see is a lot of wicketkeepers actually working very hard on the art of wicketkeeping.
"For the next generation it's almost like an afterthought or a forgotten skill. When I went to cricket practice for Victoria, I would bat in the nets for 15 minutes, and pretty much the rest of my night would be spent wicketkeeping. But how much does the modern professional wicketkeeper put into the technique of wicketkeeping?"
It's worth noting that even with generally less time spent on training, there have been advances, as in MS Dhoni's stumping style. Dhoni hardly spent any time in nets training but the fact that his hands don't give when collecting up at the stumps, that they almost take the ball and the bails off at the same time, is revolutionary.
And it isn't just that they aren't training. Speak to enough young wicketkeepers and coaches and they will say that for the last 20 years, at all representative levels from Under-12 up, specialist wicketkeepers are just not being regularly picked.
"Michael Bates might well be one of the best wicketkeepers in the world, yet there is every chance he won't play first-class cricket again"
"I am coaching at Xavier College in Melbourne, and the two coaches I am working with said, 'Pick him, he is the better batsman', and I started laughing," says Berry.
"I told them they are speaking to the wrong person. Send me the three wicketkeepers and let me have two weeks with them. And then I will pick in the first XI the best wicketkeeper. I couldn't care if my wicketkeeper bats at 11, I need the best hands who will take the catch, and who can then go up to the stump for my legspinners."
Is there a better illustration of the state of modern wicketkeeping than one of its leading practitioners being told to pick a kid for his batting? Berry took 603 dismissals in his 153-match first-class career, and despite being acknowledged as among the best wicketkeepers in the world, he was once dropped by Victoria for Peter Roach, a tidy wicketkeeper who was seen as a proper batsman. Berry was told to go back to club cricket. "They said, 'Make some runs.' No one ever said anything about my wicketkeeping, just make some runs, and I thought, 'If those people are making those decisions, what hope do I have?'" Berry came back a year later, made 148 against New South Wales, and then went on to break the record for most Shield dismissals in a season.
Since he was dropped in 1995, or 4 BG (Before Gilchrist), it has only got worse. So many current wicketkeepers tell stories of how they started keeping wicket, and it's so often because they were picked in a squad or team that had no wicketkeeper, because none were seen to be good enough with the bat. By the time players get to an age where they are ready for professional cricket, the only option left is guys who can bat. So the real marvel of Michael Bates wasn't his wicketkeeping; it was that he made it to professional cricket at all.
Are wicketkeepers born or taught?
For years Finnish goalies had little presence in ice hockey's NHL. Then, suddenly, from the turn of the millennium, more and more arrived in the league. In a feature in the Atlantic they traced the growth to one amazing man, Upi Ylönen, a goaltending player-turned-coach, and the specialist programme he put in place in Finland in the late '70s and '80s. The programme, said the piece, took on "a life of its own" and eventually, nearly every level of hockey in Finland had specialist coaches for goalies.
Why doesn't cricket take its keepers seriously? Admittedly, goalkeepers in hockey (ice and field) and football are different to wicketkeepers. The former are less constantly involved, and their mistakes can appear more dramatic and consequential - a wicketkeeper can allow balls to go past him and only concede byes; a goalkeeper lets one through and his team falls behind.
But if this is the first age of the wicketkeeper-allrounders, why don't all cricket teams have full-time wicketkeeping coaches? Why aren't there wicketkeeping academies like there are pace-bowling academies? Why aren't the most promising wicketkeepers sent around the world to practise against all kinds of bowlers in all kinds of conditions? Why doesn't wicketkeeping coaching try to make the most of players who aren't as naturally talented as previous wicketkeepers?
In Bruce French, England have a part-time coach; in recent times they have had Paul Farbrace and Steve Rhodes helping out as well. But for a long time as Bairstow, and before him Buttler tried to earn their place, they had no full-time wicketkeeping coach. Before Bairstow was to keep in his first Test, it was Prior who led his training; Prior, the man he had replaced, who very much wanted his job back.
Early in the IPL, when John Buchanan was coaching Kolkata Knight Riders, he put together the sort of coaching dream team he had always wanted as coach of Queensland and Australia. The season was not as long, and money was less of a problem than to a national cricket board, so Buchanan lined up an assistant head coach, bowling coach, fielding coach, assistant coach, strength trainer, physio and trainer. Knowing Buchanan, he would probably have wanted a lap-sweep coach and a slower-ball coach as well. But the most radical appointment was that of a wicketkeeping coach, the former Queenslander Wade Seccombe. Many laughed at Buchanan, but it was no surprise that the IPL, or Buchanan - both innovators - were the first place this happened.
One constant irritation in cricket seems to be that it has more coaches than it needs, but right at this moment the lack of certain specialist coaches, for spin, for fielding and for wicketkeeping, is baffling. You could blame finances, as it makes more sense to hire one coach who can look after seven batsmen or three seamers, but with ever-expanding backrooms everywhere, that is not a convincing argument.
The fact that a wicketkeeper does not have someone he can turn to in a backroom staff of 20 starts looking more bizarre by the year, and it has probably already cost sides matches. Buchanan's decision might have been laughed at by those who still make the tired joke about the only coach cricketers needing is the one they ride to the stadium in, but eventually cricket teams will have to find wicketkeeping coaches or fall behind.
"The thud was the wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow gloving the ball, the thud of a new age"
"I see a modern keeper miss two chances and I think, 'This is pretty poor,'" says Berry. "But no one else seems to worry. They say, 'Ah well, we all drop catches', but I'm thinking, 'I would hate that.' I kept my own records, and I considered that I had a bad season if I missed more than three chances in a year [ten Shield games]. I kept my own data, so I could see how I was going. If I missed three in a year I'd be devastated. Now some of them miss three in a game."
Cricket has always obsessed about numbers, but many of those are as relevant now as the schools section in Wisden and the crusty old men in blazers in long rooms who still read it. But the obsession with statistics was so intense that the sport was slow to the data boom. Even ESPNcricinfo has Statsguru but very little data.
T20 sides are increasingly using data to map out a plan for every ball of a match. There is more bowling and batting data; fielding data could be next. But amid this data-led evolution, wicketkeeping has remained a magical and mysterious art averse to analysis by data. Batting and bowling averages might be inadequate, but compared to how we measure wicketkeeping, they are light years ahead. Some have tried to measure wicketkeepers by the runs they make minus the byes they let in, and by the simple calculation of what batsmen make after the wicketkeeper has missed a chance off them.
"The keeper should be measured on what he misses and not on what he takes," believes Berry. "That's when you find out that a keeper missed two catches in this Test match, but more importantly how many runs did that cost the team? That was always my feeling. If I missed Mark Waugh in a Shield game when he was 13, and he made a hundred, I was down 87 runs before I batted."
That has its flaws. To use an extreme example, look at one of the most famous wicketkeeping drops in history. Brian Lara was on 18 when Durham's Chris Scott put him down; Lara went on to make 501 not out. By this measure that drop cost Scott 483 runs. If we were to deduct 483 from his total runs for the season, ignoring any byes or other drops, he would have been left with 187 runs. In Scott's entire career, that was the only season he made more than 483 runs in a season and 483 is 14.9% of his total career runs. Technically a drop is a drop. Scott could have missed Lara another day and Lara could have been out next ball.
Perhaps the best way of measuring each drop is not the number of runs scored after it but using a batting average of each innings. In Tests in the 1990s, that batting average was 31.64. In the 2000s and 2010s it has risen to approximately 34. That means that when one wicketkeeper misses five chances, he is at minus 170.
And that is just the simplest equation. How do we compare one wicketkeeper for an attack that doesn't create that many chances with another that does? How much harder is it to keep on a ground where the ball doesn't carry and you have to stand closer than you'd feel comfortable with? What about the number of times a wicketkeeper fumbles a non-chance?
If you take the ratio of chances taken to dropped as a measure, then conditions have to be factored in. "When people ask me who was the most difficult bowler to keep to, I have to say, without being blasé, it wasn't the bowler, it was the conditions," says Taylor. "For an English player, and any wicketkeeper really, if you are playing on the subcontinent, against world- class batsmen on flat wickets in Karachi and Mumbai, they are going to hit the ball, hit the ball, and hit the ball. Then one finally comes through, and you aren't ready."
The limited data we have shows that a wicketkeeper from the subcontinent is going to miss more chances than one from South Africa or Australia purely based on the pitches and bowlers they have to face. But even if there was a system to allow for conditions to be factored in, we then have the next problem: when is a chance a chance? Cricket analysts are often quite harsh on what constitutes a chance for a wicketkeeper, but no two analysts have the same opinion.
Many will see a wicketkeeper dive and drop a catch and think that is a tough chance, but often that is because the wicketkeeper hasn't moved his feet. Or, as often happened with MS Dhoni, he simply wouldn't go for chances between him and first slip. Some analysts mark those down as a full chance, some a half, and some think it wasn't a chance at all.
Also there are wicketkeeping positives, like that stumping that only Dhoni can make. If Wriddhiman Saha is up at the stumps to Bhuvneshwar Kumar when most wicketkeepers couldn't be, and makes a stumping, shouldn't that count in the positive to Saha? Some, like Berry, were so good standing back that first slip could move wider, to one-and-a-half slip, allowing Victoria half an extra man in the field. Russell was so good up at the stumps that Gloucestershire's medium-pacers in the '90s became superstars because of him.
We have no system to work out the positives, and oddly for cricket, even the negatives haven't been added up. It would seem the only person in world cricket who is tracking missed chances by wicketkeepers - or anyone - across the last ten years, is Charles Davis, who has gone through the records of ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball records tracking drops and missed chances. It is unscientific, as he is relying on someone who is doing ball-by-ball commentary, where details and exactness are often hampered by time. But it is almost all we have on the subject. His research shows that wicketkeepers miss 15% of catches and 36% of stumpings in Tests.
It also shows the best wicketkeepers have come from outside the subcontinent, from countries that rely on fast bowlers, and the worst are from subcontinent teams that rely on spinners. His data has confirmed a few things, such as that Kamran Akmal is the fifth-worst wicketkeeper in modern cricket, justifying this thread. Wicketkeeper catches constitute 30% of dismissals (not including run-outs) where a fielder is involved, and 20% of all dismissals. That means they are, on average, involved in four dismissals in every match in which 20 wickets fall.
"Jack Russell was more wicketkeeper than man; born to be a drummer in a prog-rock band, a wicketkeeper, an eccentric jug collector"
To improve the situation, we would need an analyst or a small team of analysts at every game, a permanent camera above the ground, tracking player movements and using spatiotemporal pattern recognition, which could tell us the amount a ball has spun, the amount of deviation off the bat, the speed, the distance that needs to be covered from the original crouching position. Then we might finally know what good or poor wicketkeeping really is.
Modern data evolution in baseball, basketball and football has usually been led by inefficiencies. What skill is underrated, the improvement of which can then allow you an advantage over your opposition? Without data we don't know if wicketkeeping, or even fielding in general, is a clear inefficiency that teams can improve. But being that there are no stats at all tracking this at the moment, the leaders in cricket analysis will probably be the first to find out the true worth of wicketkeeping.
Berry believes that the skill can only be saved by data. "There should be more data. Cricket has moved a long way, but the fielding and wicketkeeping data is way behind. Let's measure a keeper's real worth. And that might bring back the art of keeping, and for idiots who ignore it, it might actually ring in their ears. Let's work out who can keep, and who can't keep beer cold."
As T20 moves further from traditional cricket, and becomes more about 240 opportunities per game, a quality wicketkeeper can be more valuable as he is potentially involved in at least 120 of those opportunities. "In T20 one batsman can win the game off his own bat," says Berry, who coached Rajasthan Royals in the IPL and Adelaide Strikers in the BBL. "If Kevin Pietersen walks past one from an offspinner, and a part-time keeper, there to strengthen the batting, misses the chance, and Pietersen goes on to make 75 off 30, he wins the game. If the keeper takes it, it changes the entire game. Maybe the ball doesn't get through to the keeper much, but the times it does, it is often very important."
Maybe the next big change in keeping won't be dependent on formats but on conditions. On a true batting pitch, where the ball will carry well and won't spin much, perhaps a batting wicketkeeper is better. On a surface that spins, swings or is up and down, maybe a specialist. Since the beginning of cricket, bowlers have been chosen based on surfaces. As cricket continues to evolve, we see more and more touring sides pick batsmen who are suited to foreign conditions. Could that happen with wicketkeeping as well?
Instead, right now we are entering the first generation where a whole raft of fans and players have grown up without top-quality glovework. Younger fans are baffled at the idea that wicketkeeping is important: just pick a batsman and give him the gloves, they Snapchat. They aren't comparing Bairstow to Taylor or Tallon, they are comparing him to Gilchrist, de Villiers or one of the many Akmals. And compared to the current crop, Bairstow isn't terrible.
In 2016, Bairstow broke two world records as wicketkeeper. He went beyond Andy Flower's record of 1045 Test runs in a calendar year, the highest by a wicketkeeper. And he went past a record held by Ian Healy and Mark Boucher, for the most dismissals in a calendar year: 68. While both are incredibly impressive - and the catches record is often used to suggest his wicketkeeping is not that poor - if no one is officially counting misses, we might never know if he has also missed the most chances ever by a wicketkeeper in one year.
In the first two full series in which Bairstow kept wicket for England, he averaged 93 with the bat. He was lauded and praised, but he also missed an extraordinarily large number of chances. If you take those out, he was averaging in the low 50s. That is still pretty good, but to keep up that kind of number he would have to keep batting at an average of 90. The interesting thing was that his first role in the side was wicketkeeping, and no matter how bad it got - and it got terrible, Kamran Akmal terrible, or as bad as Mushfiqur Rahim's ten consecutive missed chances - he wasn't dropped.
But it was because of this form that the England coach Trevor Bayliss did admit: "I am a little bit old-school. I think the best wicketkeeper should be the wicketkeeper." There was talk of Ben Foakes coming in, a proper wicketkeeper whom some have compared to Michael Bates, and a quality batsman rather than an explosive one. The trade-off with Foakes would have been that his runs come at a normal strike rate, and will not set pitches on fire like Bairstow or Gilchrist. But for all the Foakes hype, England stuck with Bairstow. Because despite the data that England had (based on the simple calculation of runs added after a miss), when it came down to it, Bairstow made a lot of runs, England won both series.
They say wicketkeepers are only noticed when they make mistakes. Well, it seems that they have been making a lot, and people have been choosing not to notice. But on day two at Lord's against Sri Lanka last year, Bairstow made 167 and also missed a simple chance. The story that made the most noise in the press was the drop. Bairstow felt it was unfair, as he had just made his top Test score. But maybe this is what wicketkeeping needs: more judgement of the skill itself. "What usually is written, or commentated, is that it was a difficult chance that was missed on a spinning wicket, and then Kohli went on to a big hundred," says Berry. "The drop usually becomes the footnote, not the story. Frustrates me watching it enormously, and it's all smoothed over if they make a quick-fire 50. 'Oh, he's a good player.'"
Before Bairstow went to the subcontinent for England's recent winter tours, there was much concern about his wicketkeeping there. The conventional wisdom from cricket journalists was that he "kept well", but the caveat often used was, "for him". According to CricViz data, Bairstow was -26.97 runs for both series, including three dropped catches. He averaged 40 with the bat over those seven Tests, but when you factor in the three drops and take off 34 runs for each, it's down to 31 runs.
Wicketkeeping is hard on every part of your body and your mind. It requires the most concentration outside the batsman on strike, it goes on for far longer, and often gets harder as the game goes on. Wicketkeepers are involved in more deliveries per match than any other player. And one mistake can cost your team a game. Or, in the opinion of some, like the Brad Haddin drop of Joe Root in the 2015 Ashes, an entire series.
"The second most important member of any cricket team, no matter what age, or level you are playing at, is the wicketkeeper, because the wicketkeeper inspires the rest of the fielders, and he lifts the level of the fielders with his catches and stumpings, and if he misses them, the bowler's and fielders' heads drop." That is what Taylor grew up believing, and even if the rest of cricket ever thought that, "they don't now".
To change that overnight would need an evolution in cricket data, an anti-Gilchrist who changes the game with his gloves, a complete rethink from a cricket board, from junior level to the professionals, and specialist coaching, all well before it even gets to a selection meeting. Gilchrist wasn't one choice; he was the tipping point of an evolution that took 50 years of choices. If cricket is going to embrace wicketkeeping again, it might not take that long, but it will need to make a lot of the right choices.