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Sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

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?

Rob Steen

April 30, 2014

Comments: 26 | Text size: A | A

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".


Zaheer Abbas is caught for 4 by keeper Bob Taylor, England v Pakistan, 1st Test, Edgbaston, 4th day, August 1, 1982
Bob Taylor, according to Mike Brearley, found county captaincy affecting his wicketkeeping © PA Photos
Enlarge

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

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Posted by Le_Jeu on (May 2, 2014, 7:14 GMT)

Mushfiqur Rahim?? Captains and keeps in all formats.

Posted by ramab on (May 2, 2014, 1:10 GMT)

@eggyroe - I don't believe Dhoni is the best wktkeeper/batsman in India for tests. I think that would be Saha - the litltle I have watched. Not only Saha is a better test batsman and wktkeeper, he has the technique to bat outside the subcontinent. Unfortunately Dhoni also happens to be a test captain and do not warrant another wktkeeper/batsman in the side.

Posted by Dashgar on (May 2, 2014, 0:42 GMT)

Usually the keeper is the captain's best lieutenant. If he is also the captain then that really adds to his pressure. Someone else must step up to that role. In Dhoni's case he had Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman as a hugely experienced trio to back him. I think leading a young or unsettled team would be a very different proposition. De Villiers will have to contend with that as the team try to replace Kallis and Smith.

Posted by eggyroe on (May 1, 2014, 18:22 GMT)

If MS Dhoni is the best wicket keeper/batsman in a country of a population of over 1 billion then the standard is very low to say the least.AB.De Villiers is in my opinion a world class No.4 Batsman who should concentrate on the batting and the tactical side of the game and not worry about the glove side of the game.In England we had the period of time were Alec Stewart was the Test Match Wicket Keeper and Captain of England,in my opinion he did not deserve a position in the the Test Match Side and definitely not as captain.Surely the position of Wicket Keeper is a special position that does not need messing around with,and a specialist Wicket Keeper is worth his weight in gold behind the stumps for runs saved as opposed to runs scored.After all Adam Gilchrist was for the want of another word a freak which we will never see again,but as an Englishman thanks for the memories,alas not all good!.

Posted by CricStaah on (May 1, 2014, 14:58 GMT)

Has everyone forgotten about Gilcrist and Alex Stuart? anyway i think a wicket keep batsmen captain is too many roles for oe man to do and usually ends up resulting in other aspects of the game suffering!

Posted by   on (May 1, 2014, 13:43 GMT)

I don't know why this fuss? Wicket keepers are the best judge of bowlers, the technical glitch in batsmen & field positions. Although I am yet to see a successful test Skipper. The Captain's job is a lot more easy when he stands behind the stumps..

Posted by   on (May 1, 2014, 4:58 GMT)

Mention here should have been made about Gilchrist's captaincy stints. After all it was under his captaincy that Australia conquered the final frontier- India- remember Ricky Ponting was injured. Before coming to India, he had also captained Australia to a 3-0 whitewash of Sri Lanka. This was at a time when Murali was at his rampaging peak. No one can forget the innings that Gilly played in the first test in the series promoting himself to one drop. Without any doubt the greatest cricketer of this generation along with Jaques Kallis.

Posted by   on (May 1, 2014, 1:41 GMT)

There are always exceptions to every rule, and if a player is a great captain and also a great wicketkeeper you will get these exceptions. However, I'm still firmly of the opinion that making the wicketkeeper the captain generally diminishes the team. A wicketkeeper is too busy concentrating on their own role - which is a pivotal and difficult one - without the added tasks of captaincy as well. The best position for a captain is as a close fielder - slips, mid on/off, square leg - decisions on fielding positions and tactics can therefore be made by a combination of two players - wicketkeeper and captain - both of whom get a good look at what is happening from different angles, often in consultation with the bowler.

Oh, and Rally_Windies, Dan Vettori's multiple roles for NZ came pretty close!

Posted by ygkd on (April 30, 2014, 23:13 GMT)

cont/ Sangakkara showed just good a batsman he could become without the burden of the gloves. de Villiers is doing well at the moment, but if he is needed to captain the side, I think expecting him to do that from behind the stumps would be asking too much. Like Gilchrist, I think de Villiers probably shouldn't do it for too long. It is worth remembering that Mushfiqur, Flower, Sanga and the various early West Indians who were keeper captains did so in emerging or less successful teams, not potential World number ones. On the other side of the ledger (keeper captains in World number one sides or thereabouts), there is really only Dhoni and I've never found his keeping and captaincy consistently convincing. Although it is obvious that he can do all three jobs well, I think it would be fair to say that there have been periods where both his keeping and his captaincy have appeared to suffer, at least in Tests. Five days, after all, is the reason why they're called Test matches.

Posted by ygkd on (April 30, 2014, 22:58 GMT)

It surely depends upon the individual in question. Mushfiqur manages to do it, as does Dhoni, although the latter's glovework may be messier because of it. Gilchrist did a good job as a short-term fill in. Flower was okay. However, going down a level, I think Matty Wade was done no favours in being handed the Victorian captaincy - he needed work on his keeping if he was to warrant Test re-selection and it is a tall order to do that, bat and captain the side too. So there are swing and roundabouts, but I have to agree with Nutcutlet that keeping skills are very much under the pump these days and, therefore, I'd much rather see keepers concentrating more on their glovework rather than being burdened with the leadership as well. The reality is that the hard work that keepers routinely did on their glovework is a rarity now, because so much emphasis is placed on batting, and cricket is the poorer for it. One only has to look back to the '70s to see how much keeping has deteriorated since.

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Rob Steen Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton, whose books include biographies of Desmond Haynes and David Gower (Cricket Society Literary Award winner) and 500-1 - The Miracle of Headingley '81. His investigation for the Wisden Cricketer, "Whatever Happened to the Black Cricketer?", won the UK section of the 2005 EU Journalism Award "For diversity, against discrimination". His latest book, Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport, will be published in the summer of 2014
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