Wicketkeeping has come a long way since the time Syed Kirmani – arguably India’s most skilled stumper – used to play. Back in the day, it wouldn’t matter if he didn’t score runs, but what did count was that Kirmani should bag a 100/100 when his performance behind the stumps would be assessed.
The ever-evolving nature of cricket, from the time Kirmani retired, has changed the complexion drastically. While the roles of batsmen, bowlers and fielders have become enhanced, the idea of a specialist wicketkeeper has been put on the backburner, feels Kirmani, who kept wickets for India during their emphatic 1983 World Cup win. He does not approve of the ‘makeshift wicketkeepers’ approach, which the Indian cricket team has stuck to by making KL Rahul keep wickets so that, and in captain Virat Kohli’s words, ‘the team can strike good balance.’
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“Do the knowledgeable know that a wicketkeeper has to be born? When I say born, he or she has to be gifted with “good vision, supported with athletic agility, reflexes, sense of anticipation,” Kirmani tells Hindustan Times in an exclusive chat. “I am not sure if KL Rahul possesses this gifted ability, I have only seen this lad batting all by himself on a bowling machine at the NCA, before representing Karnataka. When he started keeping wickets, I don’t know. All the Best to him.”
The wicketkeeping conundrum surrounding the Indian team has become a never-ending discussion. Since MS Dhoni’s absence following the semifinal of last year’s World Cup, the Indian team had invested heavily in Rishabh Pant, but a string of low scores seemingly shut the door on him. This is a player who announced his arrival in Test cricket with aplomb, peeling off centuries in the testing conditions of England and later Australia. Heavily backed to succeed Dhoni behind the stumps, Pant was seen as the next big thing of Indian cricket until last year, until things went awry.
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From a direct pick in the Indian XI, Pant has lately been warming the bench. He did not play a single ODI or T20I during India’s tour of New Zealand despite being in the squad and his role was confined to carrying drinks on the field, or offering the batsmen a change of bats/gloves. Pant has come in for criticism in recent times for his shot selection in limited-overs cricket. India coach Ravi Shastri called for a “rap on the knuckles” for him, while batting coach Vikram Rathour stressed on the about the importance of being fearless without being careless. Captain Kohli has also spoken of how youngsters wouldn’t get chance after chance in the highly competitive Indian sides.
As for Kirmani, he feels Pant had his opportunities but given he couldn’t do much, maybe it’s time to polish him a little more before he could become part of Indian squads.
“Yes, he did not capitalise on the chances provided to him,” Kirmani says. “Wicketkeeping is the most thankless and difficult job in cricket and I believe Pant has to be properly groomed. I agree that talent has to be encouraged, but mind you, in every profession, talented and promising youngsters have to be under the study of experienced seniors. Otherwise a lot of water will go under the bridge by the time the youngster comes up to the expectations.
“Pant is immensely skilled. That skill will bloom and flourish with experience, it cannot be overnight. It will take a minimum of two seasons if one is a quick learner.”
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Pant’s struggles paved the way for the return of Wriddhiman Saha, who Kirmani finds the most impressive of the lot. Battling one injury after another, Saha played his first international match for India after 22 months last October, and the way things panned out in New Zealand in February, he would stick around a little longer.
But as sorted as things may look in Tests, India’s search for a wicketkeeper persists in limited-overs. Beyond Pant, India gave Sanju Samson a go in New Zealand on the back of a strong showing in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy and a reasonably good IPL record. But judging by his reckless shots in the two T20Is he played, Samson may again have to wait a while before he gets another chance with the team.
“[Wriddhiman] Saha, by far, he has successfully performed with consistency in all formats,” Kirmani says. “Samson has shown a lot of promise in IPL matches, but representing the country – the highest level – is a different cup of tea. To survive at the top, one needs to be performing with consistency, which is key to remain on the top.”