Adam Gilchrist was a definite trend-setter. So much so that many of the teams had blinded themselves into believing that anyone who had donned wicket-keeping gloves at whatever level of cricket that they played in, but batted more than reasonably well at the first class level could assume the mantle that Gilchrist had.
Adam Gilchrist was a definite trend-setter. So much so that many of the teams had blinded themselves into believing that anyone who had donned wicket-keeping gloves at whatever level of cricket that they played in, but batted more than reasonably well at the first class level could assume the mantle that Gilchrist had. What some of these trials revealed was that not only was Gilchrist's 'keeping, a proverbial mile ahead of the rest of the pack, but the chasm between domestic and international cricket in terms of quality of bowling was relatively large. And that meant that most of these experiments with part-time wicket-keepers who could hold a bat, failed. Miserably at that, one may add.
India had its own set of woes when it came to this specialised job. Nayan Mongia was a slick mover behind the stumps, but when it came to converting him into a frontline batsman - he had been made to bat at number three - it proved to be an exercise in futility. Saba Karim came in with a reputation of been a prolific bludgeon of the cricket ball at the first class circuit, but was found out very easily by the international pace bowlers. Many believe that Sameer Dighe was unjustly treated by the selectors, and although his wicket-keeping did match up to the international standards, one was not too sure of his credentials with the bat at the highest level. Ajay Ratra scored a ton in West Indies, but it was very evident that a long rope looked difficult coming his way, while Parthiv Pael failed at the very first hurdle. His glove-work gave enough indications and more, that a 'long-stop' would soon become a necessity each time he kept wickets, and his baby-faced demeanour did nothing to fool the selectors.
Dinesh Karthik looked like a wicket-keeper; born with the wicket-keeping gloves in his hands or at least till the series against Sri Lanka brought out the chinks in his armour. His batting however was strictly okay, and even when he accepted Indian selectors’ perennial offer to convert him into an opener and got the runs, it looked evident that he was not a long term solution. Not by any stretch of imagination. His expolits at the top notwithstanding.
And then came Mahendra Singh Dhoni. A late bloomer by today's standards, the fairy tale for him began on India A's tour to the African land of Kenya, where his batting was the object of everyone's discussion, and dissection. Some of the shots were audacious, while some gave the feel that it was a wrestling bout between the bat and the ball at the local 'akhaara', and the former would invariably come out trumps. His batting could have been probably described as unaesthetic, most definitely as unconventional, and as doubtlessly effective as Bradman been christened as the best ever batsman in the world.
That was in 2004. Much water has passed under the bridge since then, and this cricketer has transformed into one of the best all-rounders India has ever seen in its history of cricket. His wicket-keeping was never talked about as much as his batting was, and the reason simply was that no other Indian 'keeper had inspired so much awe as he had with his Viv Richards-like hitting. Which was not to say that his primary skill suffered too much. At worst, he was a safe wicket-keeper, and as was with his batting, his keeping did not have the slick feet movement that one usually associates the men behind the stumps with. Yet, he was a quick learner to boot. The strength in his forearms, and in turn his long hit shots was an obvious. But to break into an Indian squad that had the three stalwarts in Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid would need him to get another dimension into his game. And that was where Dhoni got his act right behind the stumps.
Today, Dhoni is the skipper of the team in two of the three formats of the game. And with Anil Kumble all in readiness to blow thirty-eight candles on his next birthday, it should not be long before Dhoni takes on the reigns of the longest format of the game as well. From playing first class and list A cricket four years back to captaining the national team looks to have been one smooth trip for this man from Jharkhand. To an on-looker it seems like everything has been delivered to him on a platter, although one can be rest assured that the path would have been a tough, and a grinding one, fraught with more thorns than roses. And it has been Dhoni’s tenacity to see through some of these difficult times that has held him in good stead.
Now, one feels that Dhoni is soon on the verge of reaching another crossroad in his career. And that would happen when Kumble does call it quits from test cricket. Sooner, rather than later, the burden of captaincy in test matches would rest on Dhoni's shoulders and that would be to go with his leadership in the other two formats, coupled with his wicket-keeping chores and the batting responsibilities in the middle order in all the formats. A small matter of the IPLs, and the other such leagues of the world can only add to the strain, causing more physical and mental fatigue.
The question at this crossroad is whether Dhoni would survive the next few years with this much on his plate?
For the uninitiated, wicket-keeping is a gruelling occupation. On an average, a 'keeper needs to squat and sit-up three hundred times a day in an ODI, and anywhere between 600 to 1000 occasions in a test match. The fingers bear more brunt than anything else. As one saw, by the end of the CB series during the tour to Australia at the beginning of this year, Dhoni was almost using only one of his hands to collect the throws from the fielders in the deep. Add that to Dhoni's transformation from one of the power hitters in the game to a more matured and sensible middle-order statesman, to go with the pressures and the perils of captaincy, it cause much more than a little concern. The recipe almost looks certain for a breakdown, and one is surprised it has not happened already. The break from the tests in Sri Lanka notwithstanding, Dhoni's body has held up marvellously well so far; whether it would continue in the same vein is a big question mark.
Cricket Australia (CA) had resisted the temptation of saddling the responsibility of captaincy on Gilchrist's shoulders, partly because there were others who could do the job, but more so for this very reason. Opening the batting, and then wicket-keeping through an ODI, and tests came with their own set of problems, and CA saw through the same. They read the situation well and allowed him to concentrate on the two jobs while grooming Ricky Ponting for the leadership role. It may have nonplussed Gilli, but in the long run, would have appreciated the same. The Indian selectors have already made it clear that Dhoni would remain the captain and if that is the route that they have opted to take, then it makes sense for them to groom someone else to…take up the wicket-keeping gloves from Dhoni. For Dhoni’s sake. For the Team India’s sake as well.
It should augur well for the longevity of one of the more brilliant - with both his brains and brawn - cricketers that India has ever produced.