February 16, 2012

Little wonder if even Brad has Haddin-uff of being Brad

Toughness and a lack of nervousness are key for a keeper. One suspects they aren't a vital part of Haddin's make-up

Don Bradman - in that cricket's-a-gay-and-grand-old- pastime-and-verily-blessed-are-we-to-be-its-custodians way he had of talking - once wrote about the first ball of international competition he ever sat witness to and how the memory of it never left him. Sydney, 1921, and it wasn't the tremors hinted at by Jack Gregory's delivery or the fineness of Jack Hobbs' leave-alone or the gum-leaf greenness of the Ladies Stand roof that stirred 12-year-old Donald to turn to his dad George and murmur something admiring. No, what impressed Bradman was a squatting, stumpy fellow with a coiled explosion of carpet where his moustache was supposed to be, Hanson "Sammy" Carter, the wicketkeeper, or, rather, Bradman liked the blissful-seeming way Carter caught that delivery of Gregory's, right in the cup of his glove, or, more particularly, Bradman thrilled to the noise this made. Noise? Hard to summon up in words. Yet the noise was weirdly soothing. Here's Bradman's best stab at describing it - "that gorgeous soft dull sound".

Almost anyone who goes to the ground to watch cricket of whatever standard knows that noise. It signifies a ball's safe landing in the double palm formed by a wicketkeeper's two catching hands, and also that those hands are imparting the just-right amount of tension, being firm enough that the ball clings but not so over-anxiously firm that it clangs out again. That's what is going on at a technical level. There's also a non-technical, bordering-on-psychological dimension. When a ball settles in a wicketkeeper's gloves - not with a click, thud, smack, slap or a kiss, but with, as Bradman correctly put it, a gorgeous soft dull sound - there's an air of effortless nonchalance to the motion. This can muck with a batsman's head. No half chances, the batsman now knows, will get fumbled today. He knows as well that the wicketkeeper is hungry for the ball. More than that, the wicketkeeper is willing the ball his way, ravenously, until the wicket-keeper - a job with a passive-sounding ring to it - turns predatory in the batsman's head, into something more like a wicket-taker, except that phrase gets used to describe bowlers, so let's think up something pointier; say, a wicket-grabber. Better yet - a wicket-clawer. A batsman has enough going on in front of his eyes to fret about. Someone clawing and grabbing at him from behind as well is just mind-screwing.

Wicketkeeping's different like that. It has its straight-up technical basics. It also has an element of hocus-pocus. The basics include body shape. Ideally a wicketkeeper should be slightly stocky but without the stockiness having turned to fat. He stands about 5ft 8in, so he's short, and nimble, but not so elf-like that he spends his whole day lunging and sprawling off tiptoes. He crouches low as the bowler approaches. He delays springing up till as late as he dares. He skates across the grass with a boxer's rapid sidesteps. Balls outside off, visible all the way, are relatively easy takes. But it's essential that he spies early the inswinger veering down leg side and starts shifting half his body weight in that direction before the ball enters his blind zone, and it's no less crucial that he should, when circumstances call for it, and as a way of geeing up the ten other fielders, be able, every now and then, to perform - hocus-pocus alert! - miracles. By miracles, I mean gravity-dissolving leaps that send cricket watchers scrambling for their phones and texting their friends, only when the text message freezes at the point of transmission you just know it's because the whole world's on the phone texting about the catch they've seen, which is pretty much the way it was in post-war London in 1948, minus the mobile telephones and the drawn-out SMS hiatuses, when Bundaberg's Don Tallon went grass-skiing on his left elbow to catch Len Hutton. It was like that at the 1975 World Cup when Rod Marsh's dolphin-bellied dive right got rid of Tony Greig, and likewise at the Adelaide Oval in 1999, the day Adam Gilchrist produced a popping-eyeballed-kangaroo's-just-skolled-a-litre-of-Gatorade jump to pull down a Sourav Ganguly hook shot.

Brad Haddin took this catch once. Australia were playing Pakistan in Sydney. Salman Butt was batting. Haddin spotted that Butt was planning a leg-glance, flew, flung out his right arm, and intercepted the ball in a twinkle so electric Tubby Taylor bellowed on TV "ripper, absolute screamer, oh that's a beauty".

"Courage" was rated by Bradman a key compulsory characteristic of wicketkeepers. He gave some mini-definitions: courage in playing on with battered, purpling hands (Haddin wears finger guards under his gloves, and calls them "a keeper's best friend"); courage in not being cowed by the danger of facial or body blows; courage in keeping up concentration on hot days when every joint and sinew hurts. Bradman settled ultimately on "moral as well as physical courage". John Benaud, a selector of 1990s Australian teams, labelled it "toughness". "Marsh," he named as an example, "played his cricket - indeed, often approached life - as if he were in a perpetual tennis tie-breaker."

Toughness or courage embraces, in large part, self-confidence, and non-nervousness. The casual cricket watcher might suspect the following of Haddin: too inclined to not go for catches and to let first slip deal with them instead, too slow to sniff out a ball's likely flight path - too far back from the stumps, maybe. "He is a nervous guy," Gilchrist commented after Haddin's breakthrough Test ton with the bat, a 169 against New Zealand, and "with this hundred what he is going to do is grow in confidence."

The casual cricket watcher might suspect the following of Haddin: too inclined to not go for catches and to let first slip deal with them instead, too slow to sniff out a ball's likely flight path

It is hard being Haddin. A wicketkeeper in a titanium helmet does not scream out courage, but titanium's in vogue. Present-day acoustics do Haddin no favours either: Hanson Carter's trusty gardening gloves have metamorphosed into modern manufacturing's baseball-style mitts - and balls landing in a rubbery horizon of webbing between a wicketkeeper's thumb and forefinger simply don't sound so lovely.

And apart from being courageous and tough a wicketkeeper's expected to be the suave gentleman always, to have romance in his veins. Bert Oldfield once caught the genius writer RC Robertson-Glasgow at Christ Church Ground in 1921. Not out, said the umpire. Oldfield waited uncomplainingly till over's end before whispering to Robertson-Glasgow: "You hit that, didn't you? Ah, I thought so. Oh, it doesn't matter about the decision. It was the catch I was thinking about."

Try walking in those footsteps. It's a tall order - especially if you're Brad from Queanbeyan via Gundagai.

Haddin let through a bye every 142 runs in the series against India. That's a massive improvement on his 55-runs-per-bye career rate. (Byes snuck through Marsh every 75 runs, for comparison's sake, and every 101 runs in his post-Iron Gloves golden years.) Batting-wise, Haddin's bail-us-out-of-strife hitting capabilities have dimmed. So, over time, did Marsh's, Gilchrist's and the West Indian Jeff Dujon's. Those three had the semi-occasional miracle to stuff up the critics' jumpers. It's been 25 months since Haddin caught Salman Butt.

Kicking Butt out of the collective memory is a still-fresh flashback:

Gambhir snicks / Haddin deliberates / Haddin dives / ball misses gloves / one of three Haddin misses that innings / Haddin's head on the turf / next to second slip's feet / second slip chewing on fingernails and avoiding eye contact with Haddin / bowler Pattinson's anguished yelp.

Time tricks us, trips us. Haddin was an uncapped and rosy-cheeked youth when his old Canberra Comets coach Mike Veletta was enthusing about this new "very aggressive" batsman and "chirpy" wicketkeeper. "Chirpy" got Haddin about right - and Haddin has got 43 Tests out of it. He has been "rested" for three one-day matches, and we won't be seeing him in the next two either, and the team to tour the Caribbean has still to be announced. The next gorgeous soft dull sound you'll hear is the sound of the selectors slamming the door on Haddin.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket and, most recently Australia: Story of a Cricket Country