April 30, 2014

Has cricket finally embraced wicketkeeper-captains?

Dhoni, de Villiers and a few others may finally be putting an end to one of the game's most robust blind spots. Or are they?

MS Dhoni: freak or taboo-buster? © Getty Images

Conservatism, reckoned Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th century Unitarian minister turned revered American poet and essayist who championed the sometime noble art of individualism, "makes no poetry, breathes no prayer, has no invention". Poor, undiscerning chap: he couldn't have seen much cricket, could he?

Until relatively recently, after all, our grand old game has uncovered poetry and beauty, even joy, in conservatism and tradition. To a degree it still does. Think cream flannels, how we applaud an incoming batsman regardless of team, of the entirely anti-professional act we still refer to, quaintly, as "walking".

Yet one by one the ancient verities have ebbed into oblivion. Bit by bit, the don'ts and can'ts have been reborn and revitalised as why nots and can dos. White balls are used in daylight. Indian quicks are more readily spotted than South African spinners. No longer are England captains exclusively public schoolies and Oxbridgers. Six-hitting openers are all the rage. Not only do fast bowlers bat, they hurl themselves head-first to stop boundaries and leap tall buildings to take superlative catches. No cutting before lunch? Do me a favour. Right-handers sweeping to backward square? De rigeur, my dear. Legspinning offbreaks? Bar mugs and Englishmen, everyone has a stab at that.

So, is it being excessively optimistic to propose that we are finally scenting an end to arguably the most robust of the game's customary blind spots: wicketkeeper-captains? It's certainly tempting to imagine so.

When Alan Knott turned up at Trent Bridge for the first Test against West Indies in 1976 with a broken finger, the man summoned as standby was not Bob Taylor, the best available county gloveman, but Roger Tolchard, whose batting was considered his strongest suit. "If we had thought there was any real doubt we would have asked Bob," explained Alec Bedser, the chairman of selectors. "We chose Roger," another selector, Charlie Elliott, told Knott, "because we thought you might be more worried about him embarrassing you with his batting, and that might persuade you to play." The psychological gambit worked: Knott played. However, if glovework now lies an even more distant second to run-making, a tide that shows no sign whatsoever of turning, another seems to be beginning to do so.

It is hardly being radical to propose that wicketkeepers are in the best position to ascertain the behaviour of a pitch, or to see whether a bowler is straining or flagging, or bowling too short or full, too slow or fast. Yet only over the past two decades have many of the breed risen to the heights of national captain, let alone stayed there for long.

Will we look back in 2054 and characterise Dhoni as freak or taboo-buster? Are we three quarters of the way up that colossal mountain of prejudice or closer than ever to accepting that, at least in a Test context, captaining and keeping are mutually incompatible?

Among the 70 men who have led their country in 20 or more Tests lurk just two keepers (MS Dhoni, 53, and Andy Flower, 20); and Flower, the first to the landmark, did not enter the lists until the final decade of the last century. England and Australia have been notably resistant. Bar Barry Jarman, who deputised for the injured Bill Lawry in the fourth Ashes Test of 1968, Adam Gilchrist was the first specialist stumper to lead the Cobbers into a Test since Jack Blackham in 1895; England have been bolder, although since Lt-Colonel Rony Stanyforth commanded an expedition to South Africa in 1927-28 they have only turned to Alec Stewart, whose 12* matches as a multi-tasker spanned nine years. Globally, in terms of trustworthiness, even those macho chin musicians (Imran Khan, Kapil Dev and Wasim Akram all tossed up 25 times or more) have endured less prejudice.

How the times appear to be a-changing. Strategy and adaptability may not be his forte, but Dhoni's air of effortless authority has for some time enabled him to combine stump-minding and leadership, and with unprecedented success. In many eyes, AB de Villiers is the soundest bet to succeed Graeme Smith as South Africa's Test captain. In the recent Ashes series, Matt Prior was England's vice-captain and Brad Haddin understudied Michael Clarke. Brendon McCullum has emerged as one of the game's most dynamic conductors, not only an exemplar par excellence but also a savvy and enterprising tactician.

Looking ahead, two keepers, Quinton de Kock and Ben Foakes, have recently led South Africa and England Under-19s respectively. Further evidence of changing perceptions can also be seen in the ranks of the ODI coin-tossers: besides Dhoni and Flower, the only other keepers to have done so 30 times - McCullum, Kumar Sangakkara, Moin Khan, Lee Germon and Khaled Mashud - have all done so since the mid-1990s.

Meanwhile, beyond the field, in terms of influence, the ex-keepers are on the march. After a stint as coach, Moin has just been appointed Pakistan's manager and chief selector (though Shahid Nazir's intended High Court petition over unpaid Indian Cricket League wages might soon scupper that); Tim Nielsen coached Australia for a spell; having been coached with not inconsiderable acumen by Flower, England have now entrusted their revival to two more members of the species, Peter Moores and Paul Farbrace, not to mention Paul Downton, the ECB's new MD. Mark Wallace doubles as Glamorgan captain and chairman of the Professional Cricketers' Association; Dave Richardson, South Africa's first post-apartheid bye-stopper, is now ICC CEO.

An illuminating parallel can be drawn with baseball catchers. Five of the past 11 World Series winners have been managed by former backstops; when the New York Yankees took four such titles between 1996 and 2000, they, too, were helmed by a member of the crouching fraternity, the wise and unflappable Joe Torre.

Why, though, has cricket taken so long to attain even this degree of enlightenment? It might have arrived earlier had the Australian selectors not bypassed Rod Marsh once Ian Chappell stood down in 1975. As Mike Brearley put it, the "astute" Marsh, subsequently head coach at the Australian Academy, was unfortunate in being one of Kerry Packer's more enthusiastic supporters, and hence, like Chappell, "tarred with the brush of revolution and extremism".

In fairness, to propose that there are no grounds for discounting keepers as captaincy material would be naïve in the extreme. "There are three reasons I can be keeping badly," reasoned Taylor, an early victim of the preference for batter-stumpers that infested English cricket after Godfrey Evans retired almost half a century ago. In no particular order, the roots of under-performance, as he saw it, were "lack of concentration, standing up too soon, or snatching at the ball". Brearley developed the theme in his seminal treatise The Art of Captaincy.

"One problem is simply logistic. The captain needs to talk to his bowlers…at least [the captain who fields at slip] is not encumbered by pads for his repeated sprints from bowler to fielding position…The main problem, however, seems to be the degree of concentration that 'keeping entails. Not only do they have to expect to take each delivery, but whenever the ball is struck they have to prepare for a throw-in, which often means dashing up to the stumps. Taylor was one who found, in a few months of captaining his county side, that one role adversely affected the other; he was no longer 'keeping at his best."

On that basis, then, little has changed. As a top-three batsman, Sangakkara juggled stoutly and commendably but ultimately found his capacity for biting exceeded his aptitude for chewing. The back problems that persuaded McCullum to give up stump-tending last December proved a boon, allowing him to narrow his focus. For ABD, stepping into Smith's seven-league boots may be conditional on shedding the gloves, but so invaluable is he as an allrounder, the stripes may go elsewhere.

Mark Robinson, the Sussex head coach who was recently shortlisted for the England post, believes Prior has "an outstanding cricket brain", but admits he would have been fretful for his man's chances had Alastair Cook been obliged to hand over the reins during that Ashes horribilis. After all, as Robinson incontrovertibly attests, "there's a big difference between being vice-captain and captain", and Prior's experience of the latter is minimal.

All the same, Robinson was unhesitating in describing Moores to me as "the best bowling coach I know". If this makes one fear all the more for David Saker's chances of hanging on to his job, it also goes some way towards explaining why keeper-turned-coaches are growing in desirability (and highlighting the inordinate delay in coming to such a conclusion).

So where does that leave us? Will we look back in 2054 and characterise Dhoni as freak or taboo-buster? Are we three quarters of the way up that colossal mountain of prejudice or closer than ever to accepting that, at least in a Test context, captaining and keeping are mutually incompatible, that this is one ancient verity destined to survive the winds of progress? Will mistrusting the leadership skills of those best equipped to assess bowlers remain a contradiction on a par with the candidate in my impending local council elections who has chosen to stand on a zero-immigration, anti-EU platform while representing an entity laughingly called "The Harmony Party"? Over to you, ABD.

11:20:47 GMT, 14 May 2014: The piece initially said Alec Stewart had 15 Tests where he was wicketkeeper and captain

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His latest book is Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport