'Teams are investing too much in batsman-keepers'
Wicketkeeping has been a hot button during the England-India Test series, mostly for the poor quality of much that was on show from both sides. Bob Taylor, who kept with distinction to the likes of Ian Botham, Bob Willis, Chris Old and Phil Edmonds in 57 Tests for the England side of the late 1970s and early '80s, spoke to Cricinfo about where the likes of Matt Prior and MS Dhoni are going wrong, the unhealthy modern obsession with keepers who are primarily batsmen, sledging, and more.
Matt Prior is under a lot of fire for his work behind he stumps. What do you think is wrong with his keeping?
One of his problems is, he doesn't use his feet. When you stand back to seam bowlers you've got to move your feet and get your body behind the line of the ball. You can't afford to wait for the last second before moving. If they nick it and the nick's wide, you need to be moving, sort of half-anticipating it. Prior has to be a bit more agile on his toes and get his body behind the line of the ball.
Does it come to as a surprise? Because Prior has kept in English conditions for a while now - where, with the ball swinging around, it's paramount for keepers to cover a lot of ground?
It does come as a bit of a surprise. If it is an overseas wicketkeeper, like [Mahendra Singh] Dhoni who hasn't had a lot of experience keeping in England, then you can understand it because the ball definitely deviates off the seam and through the air more in England than it does abroad, due to the atmospheric conditions.
Prior is just going through a bad spell. He hasn't got many runs against India and that is definitely playing on his mind. This is the hardest part of keeping wickets: concentration.
Do you think it's possible for him to correct this at what is a relatively late stage in his career?
He can certainly improve. He obviously has got the ability to improve. With proper coaches at hand it is definitely possible to make the correct changes.
Is it necessary to have a wicketkeeping coach?
Yes, there is definitely a role for a wicketkeeping coach. But I don't know if there is individual coaching or advice available for international wicketkeepers. Wicketkeeping coaching is a specialist subject. I am a cricket coach and to this day I can't express clearly to a bowler how to hold the ball, about his action and so on - I haven't got a feel for it. Likewise a bowling or batting coach who has never kept wickets will have no feel. With wicketkeeping, the most important thing, apart from getting the body behind the line of the ball, is concentration - an area I specialise in.
We've seen in this series how wicketkeepers like Prior, and to an extent Dhoni, have often failed to collect the ball neatly. Are there any technical faults that are responsible?
When you keep to a quick bowler the two priorities are the speed of the bowler and the pace of the wicket. The general rule is, you take the ball about waist-high usually. Now if you are taking the ball at ankle height then you are standing too far back. That is the main problem with wicketkeepers today: they stand too far back. So if the batsman nicks it, he takes the pace off the ball, which means it will hardly carry to the wicketkeeper, and it certainly won't carry to the first slip. And there's nothing worse for a fast bowler who is striving to get a nick, and when eventually the batsman does nick it, it doesn't get carry to the wicketkeeper or a slip. That's a crime.
Do you see that as a trend, keepers not working on the basics?
I am sure they do work, certainly the international keepers. They must, they have to.
I always ask a wicketkeeper what he prefers to do, whether he likes to work with a couple of players or he likes to keep wickets in the nets. Personally I don't like keeping wickets in the nets because to me that is quantity rather than quality. You go into the nets, there are three or four bowlers and one batsman. You're crouched behind the stumps, you're in an confined space in the net, and the bowlers are running in one after the another. In this scenario the wicketkeeper is a jack in a box - he is up and down from his crouched position, up and down, up and down. Now, in a match, by the time the ball is passed round to the bowler and he is ready for his next delivery, the wicketkeeper has had time to gather his thoughts, relax. So keeping wickets in the nets gets you into bad habits.
I would rather have a wicketkeeper, a batsman with a very narrow bat (about the width of a cricket stump), and a thrower or a bowler 10 metres away throwing outside the off stump. The batsman can then either hit the ball or miss it deliberately and the wicketkeeper doesn't know whether he is going to play it or miss it. That's more realistic practice.
If you look at cricket history, the successful teams always have had an excellent fielding side, and good fielding sides are led by their wicketkeeper
How important is the positioning of slip fielders?
The first slip's position is governed by where the wicketkeeper stands, particularly with the fast bowlers. Generally speaking, the first slip is at least a metre or a metre and a half behind the wicketkeeper and wide by a simlar distance, and then the second slip is in line with the wicketkeeper. Again, with experience you talk with the slip fielders and you know exactly where to stand.
What is the key to collecting balls down the leg side?
If there is a right-arm fast bowler and you've got a right-hand batsman, I say to wicketkeepers: as soon as you see the line of the ball going down the leg side, start to move. Don't wait for it to go past the batsman, otherwise that's too late, particularly if the ball swings. In English conditions the ball dips and swerves late, so as soon as you read that the ball is going down leg, you have to be on your toes; your feet have got to be moving. That way if a batsman gets a nick down the leg side, one can convert half-chances.
Do you think specialist wicketkeeping is a dying art?
Yes, because the captains and the coaches have this temptation to choose a batsman-wicketkeeper. As long as he can bat it doesn't matter, he is a back-stop. For me that is wrong. You've got to have a true wicketkeeper. Duncan Fletcher thought it was easier to make Geraint Jones into a Test wicketkeeper than it was to make Chris Read, who Jones took over from, into a Test batsman. It didn't work.
Okay, the wicketkeepers can improve their batting but it is not the be-all-and-end-all. Teams are investing too much in batsman wicket-keepers.
Are wicketkeepers born or made?
You've got to have a certain amount of ability, haven't you? Yes, wicketkeepers are born not made, but you can improve if you have got any ability. You need the intelligence and the ability and then you can improve a lot if you work hard at your game.
Great batsmen rely on instinct and hand-eye coordination. What about great keepers?
It's the same, isn't it? You've got to be in the right place at the right time and that comes with experience and natural ability. Good wicketkeepers miss fewer chances? Good wicketkeepers are able to convert half-chances into chances, diving inches from the ground, catch a ball that wouldn't carry to slip, and things like that.
Like batsmen and bowlers, how difficult is it for keepers to adjust to different conditions and various pitches?
When people ask me who is the most difficult bowler I have kept to, I tell them without sounding blasé: "It isn't the bowler, it is the conditions." As an English cricketer travelling to the subcontinent, where the wickets were flat when I played and there were world-class batsmen who were hardly beaten by our bowlers, I became redundant. The only time I was fielding the ball generally was when the ball was being thrown back from the boundary. So for most of the day when the conditions are hot and sticky, the batsmen are striking the ball all around the ground, you've had nothing much to do. Then in the last over of the day suddenly the batsman nicks it or you miss a stumping and that batsman is there the following day and its odds-on he'll get a hundred. Now that's what wicketkeeping is all about: taking that difficult chance in the last over of the day after a hard day's fielding.
If the ball is turning and bouncing, you should have enough ability to be able to take that. When its doing something, the wicketkeeper is alive, he is expecting something to happen.
I've talked to Ian Healy about how it was to keep to Shane Warne and he agreed. I said, "Ian, with no disrespect, Shane was [consistently] beating the bat with his repertoire of deliveries, so you were ready for it, you were on your toes. It takes ability to be able do that, but its much easier if you know the ball is going to beat the bat." That's why you need the concentration.
Most wicketkeepers find it difficult to keep against spinners in modern cricket. Why?
That might be due to the influence of one-day cricket where a lot of wicketkeepers stand back because the captains are bowling quick bowlers all the time, so they don't get much chance to stand up to the stumps.
There has been a traditon of great bowler-keeper partnerships - Lillee-Marsh, Bari-Imran, Warne-Healy. So one important aspect of a being a good wicketkeeper is that he needs to have a good rapport with the bowler. Isn't it?
Yes. When people ask me who I think is the best wicketkeeper ever, I would say Ian Healy, because Healy and Shane Warne complemented one another: Ian Healy made Shane Warne into the best legspinner of all time and Shane Warne made Ian Healy into the best wicketkeeper. If Healy had missed some of those catches and stumpings, Warne wouldn't have 700-plus wickets. The rapport is something that grows; you build it up with experience and talking.
When a keeper drops a catch, how difficult is it for him to bounce back?
If you drop a catch, that's history. You can't bring it back, and you know the very next ball you could do the same again. So you just ought to forget it, drop it out of your mind and think about the next ball, because if he nicks the next one and you drop it, you're doubly at fault.
How does a wicketkeeper know when he is out of form?
When he is dropping the ball, when he is missing and dropping catches. Basically, whenever you are keeping well you don't think of what you are doing, you just do it automatic - this is a natural wicketkeeper. An unnatural, or a wicketkeeper of lesser ability, has more risk of missing chances, so it is going to be doubly harder for him.
Prior was picked by England for his batting. He started off well against West Indies earlier in the summer but it is beginning to sort him out now, isn't it? Why was Geraint Jones dropped? Because of poor batting form. Ironically his wicketkeeping improved somewhat but he wasn't getting runs, so obviously the press boys criticised him as they are doing Prior now.
Wicketkeepers as captains - what are your thoughts?
It's very difficult. There haven't been any successful wicketkeeper-captains. Alec Stewart tried to captain, open the batting and keep wicket. That's three jobs and it was impossible. A wicketkeeper is better off being the captain's right-hand man. He can advise the captain and inform him about what is happening around.
International wicketkeepers are seen as sledging a fair bit. Is it important to be vocal behind the stumps?
No. Categorically no. I would never advocate it. The thing that Matt Prior and few others are doing nowadays, this sledging business, of getting on to the batsman and trying to pressure him into playing a bad shot ... it's a load of rubbish because while you are doing that you are not concentrating on your job. Whenever I coach youngsters I tell them to forget about what goes on on television with these international players and just concentrate on what they are doing. The only way I would allow a wicketkeeper to shout around is to encourage his own bowlers and fielders, not at the opposition batsman. It is totally out of order in my book and its not part of the game.
Do you think you would have played in this modern age solely as a specialist wicketkeeper?
I doubt it. I don't think so. I kept wickets for England in nearly 60 Tests, and contributing largely to that was the fact that we had a certain Ian Botham. Botham would bat at No. 6 or 7, while I came in at 8 or 9. They could afford to play me because Botham was a genuine allrounder who used to get runs and wickets to help you win the match.
That's what wicketkeeping is all about - taking that difficult chance in the last over of the day after a hard day's fielding
Are there any specialist wicketkeepers left in international cricket?
I'm not sure there are. The last one was Ian Healy.
What do selectors need to look for when they're picking a keeper?
First and foremost, whenever I'm coaching kids I always say the second most important member of a cricket team, at whatever level, next to the captain is the wicketkeeper. You pick a wicketkeeper for his wicketkeeping ability. When you've got somebody like Adam Gilchrist who can bat and keep wickets then you are very lucky, but if the decision is marginal I'll always go for a wicketkeeper-batsman rather than a batsman-wicketkeeper. That's because an inferior wicketkeeper is always found out and there can be a costly miss, like Matt Prior's drop of Tendulkar in the first innings at The Oval last week.
The wicketkeeper inspires the rest of the team. If you look at cricket history, the successful teams always have had an excellent fielding side, and good fielding sides are led by their wicketkeeper. If you've got a sloppy wicketkeeper who is dropping the ball, missing the stumping, then heads go down and it becomes uninspiring.
Bob Taylor is currently sales and marketing manager at British Cricket Balls Ltd, the company that supplies Dukes cricket balls for Test and first-class matches in England
Nagraj Gollapudi is assistant editor of Cricinfo Magazine