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By Suresh Menon
Wicketkeeper's fingers are not as celebrated as boxer's ears, but they bear testimony in a similar sense to the physical demands of sport. Fingertips pointed at an angle, the fingers themselves gnarled and mis-shapen draw attention to the hours spent behind the stumps gathering the ball from fast bowlers and spinners, from outfielders and close catchers, and from opposing batsmen who edge a delivery and start walking or praying, as the case might be.
Wicketkeepers must be neither seen nor heard, went the old adage. A Bob Taylor or a Syed Kirmani, for instance, were noticed only when they dropped a catch. The more flamboyant school of Farokh Engineer, Ian Healy, Kumar Sangakkara followed the advice given by an Australian predecessor, Bert Oldfield: “If you get a chance make sure you let people know what goes into your skills.”
In recent years, wicketkeepers are expected to add an edge to the attack by constant chatter and by rattling the batsman with well-aimed one-liners.
Wicketkeeping is one of the most challenging jobs in the game. The man with the gloves is always involved – which is why many take to it in the first place. He cannot afford a lapse in concentration. In the memorable words of the Australian writer Gideon Haigh, “Imagine standing at a bus stop without a time table, waiting for a bus that may come in a minute or in six hours.” Or not at all.
Two keepers have been in the news recently, the most successful of them all, Mark Boucher for the horrific accident that might cost him an eye, and Tatenda Taibu who has retired from the game to answer a higher calling. David Sheppard and Wes Hall are the two best known cricketers to have chosen the godly path – neither was a keeper, although as has been said often, the latter, a fast bowler, drove more batsmen to prayer than many priests.
You don't have to be mad to be a wicketkeeper, but it helps. England's Herbert Strudwick rinsed his hands in the chamber pot to harden them (not a technique you will find in any coaching manual), Jack Russell drank 25 cups of tea daily also ate Weetabix soaked in milk for 12 minutes and smeared with honey, while Alan Knott's yoga and fitness regimen caused Mike Brearley to call him a freak.
India's first Test keeper was J G Navle, also opened the batting; it became a well-established tradition, especially since the next keeper, Dilawar Hussain also opened the batting, making two half centuries on debut. It is as if the Indian selectors thought that keeping wickets was not a real job, you had to be able to pull your weight as a batsman too. It also meant that wicketkeepers became emergency openers, the theory being their eyes were already accustomed to the light and a ten-minute break was all that was needed to switch pads and gloves.
Before Farokh Engineer brought an element of relative permanence to the job of the wicketkeeper-opening batsman, his contemporaries Budhi Kunderan and Indrajitsinji had already done it. Earlier there was Hindlekar and Meherhomji who played the dual role.
In the pre-Dhoni days, Nayan Mongia opened against Australia and made his highest Test score of 152; Dinesh Karthik's only Test century also came as an opener, but he didn't keep wickets in that match.
The old-fashioned question: Is he the best man for the job - has seldom troubled the Indian selectors who have tended to go for the player who could bat a little and keep a little, rather than someone who is picked for his skill as a wicketkeeper alone.
On the other hand, they have also encouraged the unorthodox keeper which is a change from the usual obsession with orthodoxy. Both Kirmani and Dhoni have their unique styles that the coaching manual might frown at, but both have been successful.
You don't have to be mad, but it helps.