November 10, 2011

Leading from behind

History suggests it is impossible to do both, mind sore hands and fields for a long period. Rashid Latif and Adam Gilchrist, two adept multi-taskers in their time, weigh in

"High and bullet-like to his left," Wisden described it.

Pakistan were favourites to win the Lord's ODI when they had reduced England's chase of 230 to 154 for 6 in the 36th over. Shoaib Akhtar was in rhythm that June afternoon in 2003, bowling fast; "extra-fast", as Wisden observed. Then the edge, high and bullet-like, to the left of Rashid Latif, was dropped, and the beneficiary, Marcus Trescothick, saw England home.

Latif remembers the drop clearly. It was the last of the 25 ODIs he captained Pakistan in, to go with six Tests. "We were winning that match," Latif says. "Shoaib Akhtar was very quick that day. Still, I was surprised I dropped that catch. It wasn't a difficult chance, and there were very few catches I dropped.

"I kept thinking about it till I went back to the mark next ball. Then I realised I hadn't stood there when I dropped the catch. I had been closer to the stumps than usual. I had been setting the field and had walked towards the stumps. I was so involved in doing that that I ended up standing too far in front for the next delivery. Trescothick nicked, I couldn't judge it, it hit the hand, and fell out."

This may be a rare case but it's definitely the sort of thing selectors have in mind when they try to keep wicketkeepers away from captaincy. The numbers are instructive. MS Dhoni's 32 Tests as a keeper-captain are well ahead of next man Gerry Alexander's 18. Only nine wicketkeepers have managed to captain their sides in 10 Tests. The ICC may have selected him as keeper-captain of their Test team of the year, but Kumar Sangakkara never kept wickets when captaining Sri Lanka, even if it meant handing over the gloves to the lesser-adept Tillakaratne Dilshan. Latif's example might sound a bit extreme but he uses it because, well, it exists. The less conspicuous issues are greater in number.

A wicketkeeper's stock work, especially in Tests, usually starts when everybody else begins to switch off. Every ball is an event that builds up slowly. The bowler runs in, the fielders take steps forward, the batsman concentrates on the ball in the bowler's hand, the non-striker and the umpire become alert, even the worst commentators shut up. The ball is pitched outside off, the batsman shoulders arms, and switches off. The fielders relax, the bowler starts thinking of the next delivery, the umpire and the non-striker relax; the commentators think of a joke, a statistic, an observation. According to stories told affectionately by Pakistani cricketers, Inzamam-ul-Haq could even doze off. The captain starts thinking where the game is going, whether he needs a bowling or a fielding change.

"Cricket is a game of concentration. Wicketkeeping more so. Calculation is the captain's job. What fields are required, how to use a bowler. You get lost in the match. You forget your own performance"
Rashid Latif

If the keeper is the captain, the moment represents, to loosely use a term in vogue, a conflict of interest. A keeper's job is to stay blank, concentrate on the ball, rise from his squat as it passes the stumps, and collect it sweetly, in the middle-third of the palm. The margin of error is miniscule. If the timing is even slightly off, it can hurt the fingers. You can't afford to have your mind elsewhere then. Especially in places like England, where the ball swings late, or when the bounce is variable. The hands get sore if collections are even slightly off; the fingers get bruised. And it takes only the odd unclean collection to start a chain.

Paul Nixon recently observed of Dhoni: "I have been watching and studying the way he is keeping. From what I have seen, I think he has sore hands. He normally catches the ball strong and aggressively. I have seen him keeping the ball in an exaggerated manner. You do that as a keeper when your hands are sore."

There is a vicious cycle here. The hands become sore, so you are not relaxed while collecting, and thus you leave yourself open to further soreness and bruises. And they can pile up. Some might say Dhoni's disfigured hands - at the best of times he can't get his middle finger into an inner glove comfortably - are par for the course for a wicketkeeper, but it is possible that captaincy has played more than a significant role in it.

Even without the extra responsibility of captaincy, the wicketkeeper is arguably the most important man on the field, batsmen and umpires included.

"He actually runs the game," says Latif. "I can't talk about others, but from my experiences, your performance suffers when you are the captain too. Cricket is a game of concentration. Wicketkeeping more so. Calculation is the captain's job. What fields are required, how to use a bowler. You get lost in the match. You forget your own performance. All you are thinking is who should bowl the next over, does my strike bowler need rest, are my fields too defensive, are my fields conceding too many easy boundaries…"

Adam Gilchrist, who captained Australia to their series win in India in 2004-05, agrees about the demands of the jobs, but looks at it differently. "It all depends on the personality of the wicketkeeper," he says. "Lots of concentration required, but it's a part of the challenge, a part of satisfaction from the job. You work on your fitness, you work on your skill, and that fitness training allows you to maintain a better concentration."

Gilchrist was the original deputy to Steve Waugh. When an injury forced Waugh out of a Test in 2000-01, a nervous Gilchrist, as Wisden said, captained Australia to a win over West Indies in Adelaide. When it came to replacing Waugh full time, though, the captaincy went to Ricky Ponting. Here comes into the picture the other, modern expectation from a keeper, the batting, which makes the job even more difficult.

"I think Ricky was the right man for the job, and I am not sure that I needed to be doing it full time because of the amount that was on offer," Gilchrist says. "The batting and keeping - for me, personally, I don't think I needed to be doing all that full time. We had a man qualified to take the reins, and I loved supporting him." Whether Gilchrist would have taken the challenge for his satisfaction had he not also been a specialist batsman seems a pointless question now.

Latif isn't in direct disagreement with Gilchrist. They concur on the unique advantage a wicketkeeper brings as a captain.

"I always found it a terrific spot to view a match from," Gilchrist says. "It gives you proper insight into how the bowlers are going, field positions and angles." Apart from that, the keeper knows exactly what the ball is doing. He knows what the batsman is trying to do. From how hard the ball thuds into his gloves, he can tell if the bowler is tiring.

Latif goes a step further and says a keeper as captain can do better in terms of strategy than just performing his perceived orthodox role of passing privileged information to the captain - preferably a batsman - and advising him. "The whole game is being played out in front of your eyes," he says. "If somebody else is the captain, you have to go to him or send the message across through someone. If you are yourself the captain, you need not go anywhere. You can effectively run the game through eye contact. If you can make it work, it works beautifully."

Wasim Akram, an advocate of bowler-captains, thinks only wicketkeepers can match bowlers when it comes to captaincy. As an aside, Pakistan need to be thanked for consistently challenging conventional ideas about captaincy. Which other team can claim to have had five unconventional captains in a decade - two bowlers, two wicketkeepers and an allrounder - and also to have won the World Cup, the Asian Test Championship, and stayed a formidable team during the period?

Latif found a method to keep himself fresh. "Initially I spread around the responsibility," he says. "I said, Younis Khan will command the fielding and I will just relax and look after bowling changes. Then I wouldn't get involved in their work. Because the match is developing at the same time."

The success story

If Latif had fielding captains who could share his burden, Dhoni has a bowling captain in Zaheer Khan. Moreover, as a captain Dhoni keeps things simple. He seems comfortable letting go. He doesn't stress himself too much with selection issues, and only truly switches on as captain after crossing the white line. The coaches he has worked with say the division of work is clear: it's their job to provide the best-prepared team, and his job to take over on the field.

"There are many batsmen or bowlers who prefer to concentrate on their own cricket. It's the same with keeper-batsmen. It shouldn't be a pigeon-hole"
Adam Gilchrist

Then again, Dhoni's India play much more cricket than Latif's Pakistan did, or Australia did when Gilchrist played. On his days off, Dhoni captains his IPL franchise. Although strong and fit, he doesn't have a traditional wicketkeeper's body. It is tough to be extremely supple behind the wicket when you're as big as Dhoni is. Even with all the workload and captaincy pressure he remains the best keeper in the country, which has to be hard work. He has an understandably homemade technique with the gloves too. If the no-follow-through stumping is pure flash, for some reason he fails to dive for the catches between him and first slip more often than other keepers do.

In England when everything caught up - the stress of captaining a failing unit, the absence of the bowling captain, the fatigue, the late swing - Dhoni seemed every bit a keeper who could do with a little less work. And the inevitable question arose: to keep or to lead?

"I don't think we should brand every wicketkeeper [as] being unable to do it," Gilchrist says. "It's the same as some batsmen not being able to handle captaincy. There are many batsmen or many bowlers who prefer to concentrate on their own cricket. It's the same with keeper-batsmen. It shouldn't be a pigeon-hole." Then again, if a batsman or a bowler loses form on account of captaincy, there are five other batsmen and four other bowlers. The wicketkeeper is all alone.

Latif empathises with Dhoni. "I am a huge fan of Dhoni the captain," he says. "As a wicketkeeper he is not outstanding, has never been outstanding in the way that somebody like [Nayan] Mongia was. But Dhoni is a good leader, and solid behind the stumps, if you take out the England tour. It's possible he took all the pressure on himself. As a wicketkeeper, we just need to let him be for a while."

Dilip Vengsarkar, chairman of the selection committee that made Dhoni India's captain, says they didn't need to give special consideration to his being a wicketkeeper. "Actually when you are the captain, you are so involved in the game, you don't think about the workload," he says. "You are engrossed in thinking about the next move, the next bowling change, the next batsman, the field placement. As a captain it can actually take the pressure off your keeping."

Gilchrist agrees. He digs into personal experience of leading Australia in India in 2004. "If anything, captaining helped me in that series," he says. "By being able to remain focused on other things than just my own form. By having other things, it allowed my personal game to relax and enjoy it."

Both also agree that Dhoni is the only man who has come close to being a durable keeper-captain at the top level. Vengsarkar, though, would love to see him rested some time soon. "I admire his courage," he says. "He is a person who is playing each and every game; the only person in the team who is playing non-stop cricket. He can easily ask for rest, but he says this is his team.

"If you are playing non-stop cricket at the highest level, it takes its toll. That's what happened in England."

Four years ago Vengsarkar saw in the "way he approached the game" that Dhoni was the man. The man who would start as limited-overs captain and would gradually take over in Tests, because the next big assignment was in Australia, a tough tour for captains. As India prepare to go to Australia again, it's Dhoni's keeping that will be watched more closely than his captaincy. If he comes back well as a keeper and expectedly goes on to become India's most successful captain, future selection committees will have a success story to refer to when they are apprehensive about handing their side's reins to a wicketkeeper.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo