There were jokes aplenty this week after the BCCI announced Dinesh Karthik as the replacement for Wriddhiman Saha, who was ruled out of the Test series in South Africa due to a hamstring injury. The joke was how Karthik and Parthiv Patel were India's best wicketkeeping options before MS Dhoni made his Test debut in 2005, and continue to remain the best options more than three years after Dhoni's retirement from the format.
Jokes apart, in the last 10 years has there really been nobody other than Parthiv and Karthik each time the wicketkeeper's slot has opened up? Before Dhoni, it was Parthiv and Karthik. After Dhoni, it has been Saha and when he is injured, it is back to Parthiv and Karthik.
"Who else is there? Nobody stands out," Vijay Dahiya, former Delhi and India wicketkeeper says. Another former India wicketkeeper and coach of several Ranji Trophy teams, Chandrakant Pandit, agreed: "I don't find anybody in domestic cricket who has been doing well as a wicketkeeper-batsman."
Pandit played 41 international matches for India, and recently coached Vidarbha to their maiden Ranji Trophy title. A successful captain, Pandit won multiple Ranji titles as a player and coach with Mumbai too.
Dahiya played a couple of Tests for India before retiring in 2006. He then served as Delhi's coach for six years and an equal number of seasons as part of Kolkata Knight Riders' staff when they won the IPL title twice.
Both Pandit and Dahiya learned and developed their keeping skills in the last century, when specialist wicketkeepers was the norm, and importantly, the only yardstick for getting selected, both at state and national level. Both men bemoan that is no more the trend. It is partly because team think-tanks, including at the national level, want better batting depth.
"Selectors have started picking players who can bat and then keep," Dahiya says. "Why do you think Ishan Kishan and Rishabh Pant have started getting picked [in emerging squads] so quickly? Because they were getting runs."
Pant, 20, has already played two T20Is for India last year. Kishan, 19, has played more first-class matches than Pant. Both of them came into reckoning based on their explosive batting in the Under-19 World Cup in 2016 and then were picked by IPL franchises. Their USP: they play first-class cricket with similar tempo. Pant was even retained by Delhi Daredevils recently for INR 8 crore (US$ 1.26mn).
When the BCCI announced Karthik as Saha's replacement earlier this week, some experts sighed, saying the selectors had once again taken a backward step by not sending Pant to South Africa for the third Test. The same pundits wanted Pant to replace Dhoni in the limited-overs formats in the past year when Dhoni struggled for fluency and impact as a batsman in T20s.
Pandit is against such an idea only because on overseas trips, he feels, selectors want a player with experience, someone who would not be overwhelmed by the conditions. "When you are playing abroad and suddenly your first-choice wicketkeeper is injured, you always look for an experienced player, somebody who has played in those conditions, someone who can take that challenge."
Both Pant and Kishan have kept wicket on A tours, including in South Africa last year, but Dahiya and Pandit believe they are not ready for the step up to Test cricket. "Because of Twenty20 cricket, makeshift wicketkeepers are getting opportunities," Pandit says. "What is happening now is most of the [young] wicketkeepers are not able to concentrate on keeping. That element is being badly neglected."
The only specialist wicketkeeper among the young lot whom Pandit finds promising is 27-year old Sufiyan Shaikh. However, he has played only three first-class matches for Mumbai because Adtya Tare, the captain, is the team's primary wicketkeeper. Shaikh only got in the XI last season, when Tare was injured and Pandit was the Mumbai coach.
Pant is still far from a "thoroughbred" option behind the stumps, according to Maharashtra coach Surendra Bhave, who was a selector until 2011 and who kept tabs on Pant while Maharahstra played in Delhi in the Ranji Trophy in November. There were a few words of comfort though. "Although he did not have a good semis and final in the Ranji Trophy, on an iffy wicket at Palam (in Delhi), Rishabh kept brilliantly against Maharashtra. [He] covered the bounce, both low and high."
Pandit, too, saw Pant, when Vidarbha faced Delhi in the Ranji final in Indore earlier this month and the impression he got, at least based on Pant's batting, was that he was playing a T20. "He kept well against the fast bowlers in the Ranji final. But that can be done by most wicketkeepers," Pandit says of Pant, who held five catches in Vidarabha's first innings.
According to Bhave, Pant's "super-explosive" batting style in the T20 format has hurt his first-class form. "He failed in a few matches before he played Maharashtra. He did get a 99, but only after being dropped twice, against us. He has a patchy form this Ranji Trophy, so he has not actually batted all that consistently in multi-day cricket."
Pant has so far played 21 first-class matches. He averages 53.62 with four centuries including a triple-century and five fifties. Having averaged 76.38 in his maiden season, Pant struggled in this Ranji Trophy; his average was halved to 34.92 and he couldn't make a century in 10 matches.
As a wicketkeeper, Pant has 56 catches and 7 stumpings. Since his Ranji debut, Parthiv played 31 matches to finish with 92 catches and three stumpings with a batting average of 41.90, including three hundreds; Karthik played 22 matches, took 55 catches, made four stumpings and had a batting average of 48.25, with three centuries.
Bhave believes a wicketkeeper should be picked for Test cricket based on his work behind the stumps. "First and foremost is they have got to be a fantastic wicketkeeper. An absolute must. The batting comes as a plus." For Test cricket, he says, you need someone who keep wickets "day-in-day-out and has good powers of concentration, reflexes and balance." Saha was the one who possessed all those qualities during Bhave's tenure as a selector. The second choice was Parthiv.
MSK Prasad, a former India wicketkeeper, and current chairman of the selection panel, had last year expressed similar sentiment when he said the reason Saha was the No. 1 choice was because of his wicketkeeping. But selectors at the state level, Pandit points out, have started looking for players who can bat first and then keep. "In the past, keeping wickets was given priority over scoring runs, but now wicketkeepers need to bat."
Dahiya agrees that you cannot anymore pick just a specialist wicketkeeper in modern-day cricket. "You are picking up allrounders. Their mindset is more batsman-wicketkeeper than wicketkeeper-batsman." As an example of such a trend, Dahiya cites the tour match against the Australians last February where Pant and Kishan played for India A. "One guy was keeping (Pant) and one was fielding (Kishan). How can you justify that? It has been going on for a while. That is why Saha had to wait for so long. Even earlier selectors picked Parthiv or Dinesh."
When it comes to Parthiv and Karthik's wicketkeeping skills, the experts disagree on who is better. Dahiya puts Karthik slightly ahead of Parthiv. "He (Karthik) is too flamboyant at times, but he is much more fit as a keeper. In the current lot including the youngsters, DK is a better wicketkeeper than anyone else as a Test-match wicketkeeper-batsman."
The selector in Bhave remains unconvinced about Karthik the wicketkeeper. The panel he was part of (which was led by former India opener and captain K Srikanth), did not have enough confidence in Karthik because he made "a lot of mistakes and failed to be consistent."
One area, according to Bhave, where Parthiv has an edge is his ability to bat in various conditions. "Parthiv's keeping might be iffy but overall he is a good package. He can bat in seaming conditions, pull and hook. He can bat on fast pitches."
Parthiv arrived at the big stage as cherubic 17-year old, making his international debut two years before playing his first match for his home state of Gujarat. This was in England in 2002, and back then he was the youngest wicketkeeper to play Test cricket. He would play 15 Tests before Karthik replaced him. And Karthik would play 10 Tests before the selectors handed the job to Dhoni.
Dhoni was not a technically correct wicketkeeper, but with his fitness, reflexes and street-smarts, he remained a solid presence behind stumps. Since his debut in December 2005, he missed only nine Tests. Karthik (6 matches), Parthiv (1) and Saha (2) filled in for him. Since Dhoni retired in December 2014, Saha, who is technically proficient, has kept in 29 Tests while Parthiv (4) and Naman Ojha (1) have featured in the other five matches India have played until now.
However, in the past 15 months, Saha has been injured twice in the middle of Test series. The first time was in November 2016 when he suffered a shoulder strain and couldn't play against England. Parthiv stepped in, playing his first Test in eight years. He showed enough character both in front and behind the wicket, and then went and won the Ranji Trophy for Gujarat.
Saha, Parthiv and Karthik, in that order, remain the first choices for the selectors now, but all three are fast approaching their twilight years. Saha is 33, Karthik and Parthiv will be 33 by June. Maintaining their agility and fitness are bound to be their main challenges.
All three experts agree it is a difficult job to find a classical wicketkeeper in Tests. Pandit suggests the Indian selectors need to identify and speak to those young hopefuls they feel can graduate to the Test squad in the near future.
"Indian cricket has to take this seriously," he says. "I feel that your best wicketkeeper probably can win the game also for you if he takes a couple of brilliant catches. Many wicketkeepers in domestic cricket are lacking appropriate skills."
Dahiya agrees. "Don't pick them only for runs. If you think the next in line are Rishabh Pant and Ishan Kishan, then sit with them and tell them they need to bat at this number in first-class cricket; tell them, 'we know you guys can bat, but you need to sharpen up your wicketkeeping'.
"A wicketkeeper needs to be safe. He needs to be somebody whose basics are good and can bat at a particular number."
Pandit reckons these qualities cannot be learned by playing T20s. "Even if you identify a talent in T20 cricket, he must be made to play at least two to three years in Ranji Trophy. That is the only place where he can develop his wicketkeeping skills."
Dahiya believes picking Pant in the Test squad right now would be rushing him. "He was fast-tracked earlier and you saw what happened to him in West Indies (played only one out of six limited-overs matches in 2017)."
Pandit too has a word of caution for the selectors in case they feel Pant is next in line. "He can be coached, but it also remains to be checked how keen and serious he is about his wicketkeeping. Wicketkeeping cannot be forced on anybody. You have to have that passion and love for the job."
With stats inputs from Bharath Seervi