In the years when there were at least three claimants for the wicketkeeper's slot in the Indian team, I suggested that such riches were due to the "squatting" style of emptying the bowels in India. Crouching low with intense concentration prepares those with wicketkeeping ambitions. The writer Ramachandra Guha expanded on that theme, saying that such training was ideal for keeping to spinners.
Jokes aside, the fact remains that India, whose spinners, allrounders, batsmen and fast bowlers can take their place among the best in the world, have not produced a world-class wicketkeeper who would walk into any team for his keeping skills alone. This is partly due to the belief that has gained by repetition: that a single skill is one too few. Long before the Dutch conceived of total football, India had already thrown their weight behind total cricket. Generalists were encouraged from the start - it wasn't enough if you kept wicket, you had to contribute with the bat too.
Wicketkeepers were also expected to open innings; the theory being that the reflexes needed behind the stumps were the same that could take on fast bowling in front of them. Few Indian wicketkeepers have escaped the opening slot. Syed Kirmani is a significant exception. He has batted in every other position.
Five wicketkeepers did duty in India's first 11 Tests, and Dilawar Hussain became the first in the world to score fifties and top-score in each innings.
The best of them in the pre-Tamhane era, Probir Sen and Nana Joshi, didn't have great batting records, although interestingly the former did have a first-class hat-trick for Bengal. It was seven decades before Ajay Ratra became the first regular wicketkeeper to make a century abroad (Vijay Manjrekar had kept wicket and scored a century in the West Indies earlier).
Manjrekar, Lala Amarnath, Dilip Vengsarkar, Rahul Dravid have all kept wicket when the regular keeper has been injured, or in the interests of team balance.
Indian wicketkeepers fall into two groups - the quietly efficient like Joshi, Naren Tamhane, Indrajitsinhji, and later Krishnamurthy, Kirmani and Kiran More, or the flamboyant like Farokh Engineer and Budhi Kunderan. Keeping to the spinners has been the real test.
Probably summed up best by Sujit Mukherjee who said that "he never attempted the impossible, but seldom missed the possible opportunity". The Subhash Gupte-Tamhane combination accounted for 18 victims, more than a third of Tamhane's 51 in 21 Tests. The Mumbai keeper, the first to 100 dismissals in the Ranji Trophy, was also the first to earn relative permanency in the position for India, taking over from the specialist Joshi and handing over to the better batsman Kunderan. A stumping by this classical keeper meant just a single bail disturbed.
After serving a long apprenticeship to Engineer, he took over and in his second Test equalled the world record for the most dismissals in an innings. Kirmani, acknowledged by the spinners Prasanna, Bedi, Venkat and Chandra as the one who kept best to them, was in charge when that era ended and the Kapil Dev era began. He belonged to the "seen-but-not-heard" school, was particularly adept at leg-side collections, and over his 88 Tests (198 dismissals) held most Indian keeping records, including that of having made a century as a night-watchman.
The quietest and most successful among the threesome (Chandrakant Pandit and Sadanand Vishwanath being the others) who held fort in the decade following the mid-1980s. His figures in 49 Tests are second only to Kirmani's. Holds the world record for the most stumpings in an innings and in a match, five and six respectively in the famous "Hirwani" Test against the West Indies when the bowler claimed 16 wickets on debut.
Aggressive behind the stumps and calm in front of it, Mongia was the best in his time, but it was a short time and perhaps he did not live up to his full potential. Was comfortable keeping to the spearhead of India's bowling, Anil Kumble. A memorable 152 opening the batting ensured a win over Australia in Delhi.
In many ways Dhoni is a work in progress, but what work and what progress indeed! Unorthodox either side of the wicket, he was criticised initially for his technical shortcomings, but a big heart and a cool head resolved that problem. There were better keepers in India when he started out, but now that may no longer be true, and there are certainly no better batsmen-wicketkeepers. Dhoni's is a triple role as keeper, batsman and captain in all three formats of the game. A true allrounder.
We'll be publishing an all-time India XI based on readers' votes to go with our jury's XI. To pick your wicketkeeper click here
Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore