April 16, 2001

Where are the young keepers?

When Nayan Mongia, after playing 40 Tests in a row from his debut against Sri Lanka at Lucknow in 1993/94, was dropped for the home series against New Zealand in October 1999, it marked the beginning of a chaotic period behind the wickets for India. Five men including Mongia himself have done duty since; four in the last six Tests, leaving nobody the wiser about their relative merits. The lack of stability in such a crucial spot is a worry for, as the old saw goes, a team is only as good as its weakest link.

MSK Prasad, Saba Karim, Vijay Dahiya and Sameer Dighe have been the pretenders to Mongia's spot in the last year and a half. Both Prasad and Karim, the youngest and oldest, have slunk away into obscurity. The former was not heard of in the Ranji Trophy this season while Karim, who started the season as India keeper, suffered the ignominy of losing his Bengal place after two matches. That leaves Mongia, Dahiya and Dighe, none of whom were particularly impressive in the series against Australia, jockeying in contention for the immediate future.

Dahiya acquitted himself creditably in the home series against Zimbabwe and appeared to have the backing of his skipper Saurav Ganguly during the preparatory camp in Chennai vis-a-vis Mongia, the other keeper at the camp. But Mongia got the crucial opportunity to play the first warm-up game against the tourists and made an unbeaten 71 to hardsell the selectors, doubtless remembering his 152 in a Test match against the same opponents five years ago, on his experience.

But Mongia did little to suggest he had taken a stranglehold on the position by the time an injury in the second Test at Kolkata consigned him to the sidelines. Apart from his keeping, Mongia's attitude came under fire after he walked in the second innings of the Mumbai Test when the bowler, Jason Gillespie clearly didn't think he was out. It made for a curiously sporting gesture from a man who made a habit of leaping up in the most outrageous of appeals, and only served to buttress the impression that Mongia hadn't the stomach for a fight.

When he was injured, it was Dighe, a rank outsider in the run-up to the series, who was summoned to fill in the breach. Possibly the scales had been tilted by his gallant 84 for Mumbai against the Australians in their second warm-up game, comparing rather favourably with Dahiya's duck for the Board President's XI against the same opponents. Dahiya may also have sent negative signals by not preferring to keep wickets for Delhi in the Ranji Trophy prequarterfinal during the second Test, playing as a specialist batsman and handing over the gloves to Pradeep Chawla.

Dighe was pilloried for two stark errors in the Australian first innings at Chennai; a run out miss to relieve Matthew Hayden on 21 (he went on to make 203) and a slightly less expensive stumping miss off Mark Waugh from the bowling of his state mate Nilesh Kulkarni. But late on the fifth evening, with the fate of the series hanging in the balance, Dighe delivered with the bat for India and the agony of that first session on the first morning was exorcised. In his post-match comments coach John Wright was extremely supportive of his glovesman, suggesting that the missed chances were not neccessarily of his own making and it was a remarkable effort by Dighe to raise the level of his game when it most counted. He may have nevertheless played his last Test match unless Wright insists otherwise.

Dahiya finally got an opportunity to display his wares in the one-day arena, where he seems to have ensconced himself at least for the moment. A fine burst of acceleration in the slog overs gave impetus to the Indian innings at Bangalore but his keeping was very ordinary, especially to the spinners against whom he fumbled even routine collections.

The bench strength does not appear ready to push these guys at the moment going by the results of the domestic season so far. Orissa stumper Gautam Gopal is no spring chicken at 28 but he leads the dismissals tally in the Ranji Trophy with a very productive harvest of 27 in six games, besides averaging 42.6 with the bat. India Under-19 captain Ajay Ratra has been the heir apparent for a while now but with Haryana's Ranji Trophy team in the process of rebuilding - they did not qualify for the knockouts - opportunities have been scarce. Another youngster who caught the eye was 23-year-old Deep Dasgupta who replaced Karim in the Bengal team and settled swiftly into the position with a good allround display.

Also spare a thought for Milap Mewada of Baroda whom Kiran More considers one of the better keepers in the country. Mewada scalped 14 dismissals in two Ranji matches and is fated to remain perennially in the shadow of his senior colleague Mongia. The success of the Baroda team, which is odds-on favourite to win the Ranji Trophy as the final gets underway next Thursday, has thrust Mongia squarely into the limelight. With the team for Zimbabwe being announced on the last day of the Ranji final, Mongia will hold all the attendant advantages, but his prospects in the long term cannot appear so sanguine.