A costly infatuation
It's not quite cricket to knock a man who's down on the floor, but few sights are more distressing on a cricket field than a wicketkeeper messing up simple takes. It is one of the few near-certain things in this uncertain game; Sachin Tendulkar may occasionally miss out hitting a half-volley or Glenn McGrath may occasionally hook for four, but you'd expect the man with the gloves to take sitters, ten out of ten. When they keep on slipping out, innings after innings, match after match, a team can begin to despair.
The wicketkeeper is the second-most important man on the field after the captain from a team point of view. He is the only person who is in the action every ball, and he can often help keep his team in the game when things start to meander; he is often the cheerleader, energiser and rabble-rouser; when his confidence is shaken, the whole team feels it.
It would be unfair to lay the blame for all India's troubles in this series on the slippery gloves of Parthiv Patel. India have looked Australia in the eye in the last couple of series because their batsmen have piled up the runs; in this series, they have simply not turned up. Patel, in fact, is one of the few to have risen to the challenge with the bat, but to retain a wicketkeeper in a Test team solely for his batting is an expensive folly.
Patel has had well-entrenched supporters, most notably Sourav Ganguly. Sachin Tendulkar has gone out of his way to back him on the grounds that a player needs the most support when he is down. But Patel's gutsy performances with the bat shouldn't obscure a fundamental problem: his troubles with the gloves in the current series is not an isolated phenomenon, there is a clear pattern to it. A couple of off-colour days can be overlooked, but an off-colour year?
Patel's shortcomings are plain to see, and they are glaring. He has poor footwork, poor anticipation and poor hands. He is often late in moving, and often thrusts his gloves at the ball rather than letting it nestle into them. Great wicketkeepers are those who need to dive the least. Syed Kirmani can be called India's best ever, and he went about his job without fuss. Standing up to the stumps provides the biggest wicketkeeping challenge, and Kirmani was outstanding against the Indian spinners of that age: his leg-side collections were so efficient that it was never a spectacle. You always found him behind the ball, not beside it.
Kirmani was the chairman of the last selection committee that retained Patel in the side. Now it turns out that Kirmani didn't want him in the side but was outvoted. Kirti Azad, another selector in the previous panel, has just confirmed what we always knew: the selection-committee meetings are often about vote politics. Kirmani's opinions about Patel's keeping are particularly damning because he does not even consider Patel to be a natural keeper.
The reality of modern cricket demands the wicketkeeper to be an allrounder. The underlying danger in that is keepers these days earn their berth by virtue of their batting. Deep Dasgupta, who was a prime beneficiary of this phenomenon, remarked in a newspaper interview recently that the only way a domestic wicketkeeper could hope to catch the eye of the national selectors was through his batting.
There is great truth in this. All the wicketkeepers who have been picked for India since Nayan Mongia fell out of favour have been picked on batting potential. A few of them - MSK Prasad, Dasgupta, Samir Dighe and Patel - have even been pushed up to open. Two wicketkeepers have caught the eye of late, and it's not a coincidence that both Dinesh Karthik and MS Dhoni have shone with the bat - Karthik in the Under-19 World Cup and for Tamil Nadu in the Ranji Trophy, and Dhoni for India A. Could it be that wicketkeepers these days spend too much time improving their batting? Patel certainly looks a better batsman today than when he started, while his wicketkeeping skills seem to have deteriorated alarmingly.
Much of Ganguly's success as captain has to be put down to his unflinching support for his young team-mates. He has ensured security of tenure for those whom he has backed. But faith is beginning to prove costly in Patel's case. We recently culled some stats from our ball-by-ball records, and they looked alarming: including this Test, his 19th, Patel has missed 23 chances, and conceded 176 byes, costing India a total of 675 runs ... 38 more than he has scored. This is a simplistic calculation, of course, because all keepers miss catches and stumpings, and sometimes the reprieved batsmen go on to put up huge scores. But with Patel catches, rather than being routine, are beginning to become an exception. That's a clear signal to let go.
Sambit Bal is editor of Wisden Asia Cricket and Wisden Cricinfo in India. His Indian View will appear here every Thursday during the Indian season.