The best wicket-keeper of his time, 1986

Alan Knott - a thorough genius

Alan Knott was a great cricketer. In my view he was also the best wicket-keeper of his time. He had a good physique for the job - short, low-to-the-ground, agile and quick (through he himself foresees a new breed of tall 'keepers by analogy with tall goalkeepers, and maintains that he had to stretch so much because he was not particularly supple, especially in the hips). He had marvellous hands. Physically he kept himself extremely fit, and was an assiduous practiser. His technique was not classical; he took catches with one hand when he might have got two to the ball, and he sometimes dived when he could have reached the ball without falling. He had a sound reason for both - simply that for him these methods were more natural and more effective. His judgement about what to go for was unerring. As a first slip I always seemed to know when Alan would go for a catch in front of me, and I was never baulked by him or distracted by any tentativeness on his part. Standing up, he took the low ball without bending his knees and with his legs together. This gave him the right amount of give, against his legs. Moreover, if he missed it with his hands, the ball would not go for byes, and if the edge beat the gloves, there was no knee or elbow sticking out to obscure first slip's view, or to deflect the ball.

His constant exercising was a reflection of his perfectionism, as was the care he took to have essential equipment in perfect order. He kept and rehabilitated a favourite old bat specially for Tests; he spent the afternoon before the Melbourne Centenary Test in town getting a loose stitch from the webbing of a glove repaired, just in case he should uncharacteristically have to rely on it to make a catch.

He was also prepared to be unconventional in his gear, if it helped the job in hand. He once saw the New Zealand wicket-keeper, Ken Wadsworth, struck on the inside of the knee by an awkward throw-in; his pad had swivelled round as he moved towards the ball and had left the knee unprotected. As a result, Knott took to taping his pads to his trousers rather than using the middle strap and buckle; he thereby also reduced chafing. He did not mind at all that the effect was untidy: I have never known a cricketer who was less concerned with style for its own sake. He could never earn a living as a cosmetics salesman!

Though brilliant, he eschewed the flamboyant. He stood back to medium-pacers more than his predecessors, not at all for safety-first or to avoid error, but as the result of a cool calculation as to the overall effectiveness to the side.

As I say, he would have been in my book a more or less automatic selection for any team on the strength of his 'keeping alone. When his batting was put in the scales, all doubt fell away. For he was also a genius - a minor genius - with the bat. Here too, he was no purist for the sake of orthodoxy. Against fast bowling he realised that he had a better chance of playing a lifting delivery if he changed his grip so as to have his top hand behind the handle; this enables the batsman to hold his hands in front of his face and keep the bat straight. He evolved a kind of French cricket technique for use when he first went in against the quickest bowlers; but soon took every opportunity to attack, clipping the ball square on either side of the wicket and cutting deftly, often, intentionally, over the slips' heads. He reckons that if he were starting his career now he would learn to hook fast bowling, and cites the hours of practice Viv Richards went through, after a disastrous tour of Australia, with Andy Roberts bowling bouncers at him in Antigua.

Against fast bowlers, Knott's grip, stance and technique were totally different from those he adopted against medium-pacers and especially against spinners. He might start an innings in an orthodox vein but quickly ventured into the unusual. He played a sort of off-glide to good effect, particularly against off-spinners. His sweeping was unique; on a drying pitch at Canterbury, he once played fifteen consecutive balls from Edmonds and Emburey with this shot and never missed or mis-hit one. His secret was to get low, watch the ball, and not try to hit it too hard. But many of us could follow all those instructions and still make a hash of it! I remember an innings against India at Bangalore in 1977. The pitch had deteriorated to the point where good spinners were almost unplayable. Yet the flea kept dancing down the pitch to Bedi and Prasanna and chipping them over mid-wicket or extra-cover. The cheek and verve of this innings (he finished with 81 not out) were unmatched in my experience.

Behind all his extravagances as a batsman - as with his idiosyncracies as a 'keeper - there were the basic skills. His head was always steady, and he was capable of a long defensive innings as well as of impish aggression. He was completely unselfish.

He was courageous too. But the courage that marked him out, for me, was of a more broad-based kind. He had the guts, the confidence and occasionally the stubbornness to stick to his method if he felt that he was right.

Personal health was one area in which these attitudes were expressed. Alan was no hypochondriac, but he was keenly interested in the state of his own body. He fell ill one evening in Delhi and in the middle of the night knocked on the physiotherapist's door, bearing a sample of what had recently been in his stomach. He wanted no sketchily based diagnosis. He was equally fussy about what went into his stomach. No cheese and meat at the same meal, for example. He drank little, and avoided parties. He needed eight hours of sleep, yet had to have a couple of hours clear for ablutions and exercises before breakfast (so it was not always easy to find room-partners for him on tour). After hurting his neck in two car accidents in the mid-seventies, he had his car seat remodelled. And he was so chary of draughts that he would come away from a day's play in India wearing three sweaters, an anorak with the hood up, and dark glass. The lack of a surgical mask must have been an oversight. He was never unfit for a Test, though once, in 1976 against West Indies, he played too soon, he thought, after breaking a finger.

Tactically he was sound, though not without his biases. He had an exaggerated respect for pace, and would usually advise his captain to keep the seamers on. He sometimes overrated the players he knew best, though he was capable of hard judgements (as when he said of a colleague that he had "learned nothing during his years in the game").

Politically, he was involved in both the major cricketing rebellions of our time, Packer's in 1977 and the South African Breweries' tour of 1982. Typically, his views were well thought out, courteously expressed and tenaciously held.

The man is all-of-a-piece, and at the heart of his life lie his close family ties and religious conviction. Leaving his wife and son behind for four months at a time became an insupportable wrench; and one of the attractions of World Series Cricket for him was the welcome given to families. He was able to take a flat in Sydney with his family, and use it as his home base for the season, whereas the English establishment were less sympathetic. Their attitude often represented an unwarranted suspicion based on their inability to understand him. Some felt it outrageous that a cricketer should lay down conditions about his wife's accompanying him during an England tour. He was not, it is true, ever one of the boys; but he was a complete professional and team-man. Even his stretching exercises on the field were viewed in some quarters with a surprising hostility, as if they were for show. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

As for religion, he became a Christian in 1974. This, he has said, changed his whole attitude to life. He came to see his behaviour during the rather ill-tempered series in India in 1972-73 as reprehensible. From then on, he was on the field an unfailing example to us all. He was generous to others: Paul Downton acknowledges the many tips and kindnesses he received from Alan while on the Kent staff and since. In 1977, when we won the Ashes at Headingley, Knotty seized a bail as a souvenir for the young Ian Botham, playing in his second Test, who was off the field injured at the end of the match.

His religious beliefs also helped him to a more philosophical attitude to his own performance. He became less concerned about the outcome of his play, and focused more on simply trying as hard as he could in the way he felt was most likely to succeed. His view is that it is the inner attitude that counts; the results will then look after themselves. He is utterly modest, and equally without false modesty.

Alan Knott has retired from the game while still playing it at a very high standard. In 1985 he was regarded by virtually all the top players as the best 'keeper in England. His decision to go was based, partly, on an ankle injury which he was told could get worse if he carried on. He reaches 40 in April of this year, not long after Les Ames's 80th birthday and Godfrey Evans's 65th. He hopes to coach, to help produce, perhaps, a successor to this line of Kent and England wicket-keepers. He will be a splendid coach, wise, thoughtful, kindly and occasionally controversial.

I cannot think of any cricket, with the possible exception of Ian Botham, whose game has given me more pleasure.

© John Wisden & Co