Like a drummer in a band, never underestimate the importance of the Test wicketkeeper. In essence they are the heart and soul of a cricket team.
In this latest quite bizarre Test series between India and England, we saw both teams fluctuate, and when they did the gloveman had much to do with it. Much has been said and written about the decline in MS Dhoni's wicketkeeping. In truth, due to the unrelenting schedule, he has become merely a stopper. When push comes to shove, Dhoni is on his last legs behind the stumps, a natural decline in energy and athleticism, a case of burnout and attrition, rendering him done and dusted as a Test keeper.
It is this lack of energy behind the stumps that kills the tick tock of the fielding side and bowling attack. With no central figure and energy to work off, India grind to a halt. He will do well to be ready for the defence of the World Cup, if he carries on playing as much as he does. It's time for a well-earned break in Tests, and I mean well earned, for he plays more than any player in the game. It has now caught up with him, and India can't breathe in the field over long Test match days while a tired mind and ageing body rules the roost.
When Matt Prior attempted another gutsy comeback, it didn't serve England. They couldn't make up for the mistakes that kept coming, and ultimately they mounted up and cost the team. Yet, as soon as Jos Buttler arrived, a different vibrancy emerged. It is simply the effect of new, fearless energy, a fresh perspective, a youthful face and body, and someone different to aim at.
Throughout the game's history, it is seen that great teams and in particular bowlers, have liked their keeper to be top-notch. There is no Einstein logic required to understand why, but as soon as you see a struggling gloveman, a drummer who misses the beat, the bowling attack inevitably drops its head.
Think of Alec Bedser and Godfrey Evans, Derek Underwood and Alan Knott, Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh, Shane Warne and Ian Healy, Richard Hadlee and Ian Smith, Malcolm Marshall and Jeff Dujon, Shaun Pollock and Mark Boucher, to name just a few of the great combinations of all time. The champion bowlers swore by their masterful keeper. On the flip side, when the keeper was down, the whole team took a hit. Often teams rebuild around the wicketkeeper.
New Zealand have felt a resurgence recently and a lot can be attributed to BJ Watling, a fierce trainer, a gutsy individual and loyal team man. His batting soared as his keeping has blossomed, and his team has benefited from his infectious enthusiasm. Watling's inclusion allowed Brendon McCullum the opportunity to focus on leadership and run-scoring, a job he has so far done with aplomb.
Buttler could well provide the same spice to this rebuilding England camp. Prior did England a great service when he pulled out off his own bat; the selectors certainly weren't going to make the call. It is these quirks of fate that can set a team back in motion.
I will never forget the certainty that Smith gave Hadlee. Firstly, Smith stood up close - he had to on matches played on rugby grounds. He took the ball above waist height as often as possible, giving the impression to all, including the bowler, that Hadlee was certainly "hitting the gloves" with vigour and energy. With Smith up close, it drew the rest of the slips cordon closer, and I can attest to dropping some screamers flying around where I stood at third slip.
Having Jeff Crowe and Jeremy Coney at first and second slip respectively was the priority and they soon became the best in the world. Hadlee directly benefited from Smith's lead. Also, being closer to where the ball pitched, Smith could easily identify the length that Hadlee would be hitting. Within a couple of overs of play starting, Hadlee and Smith would meet mid-pitch to nail the exact length needed to hit the top of off stump. With Smith's finger-pointing accuracy, Hadlee would begin the process of dismantling the opposition with precision; as Smith and Co waited with fierce focus and fervour to complete the transaction.
There are many other examples of this happening over time, the most recent period being when Australia dominated for so long, led by the remarkable Healy, who had the ability to set the scene for his bowlers and slips cordon. He gave the bowler the target to aim at, while he lined his troops up magnificently. Oh, how magnificent they were too. McGrath, Gillespie and Warne bowling to a deadly cordon of Healy, Mark Taylor and Mark Waugh. You could not wish for a better band of men, led by the finest drummer on the planet.
Test wicketkeeping is an art and an engine room in one. With precision and pump behind the stumps, anything is possible on the playing field.