Wicket keeping is a thankless job. Like umpires, wicketkeepers are hardly noticed if they are doing well. They hit the headlines only when they make mistakes. A keeper might have done well for 89.5 overs in a Test match without receiving a single chance. However, if his concentration flags off the last ball of the day due to sheer exhaustion, and he spills a catch or misses a stumping, his one error will be discussed, dissected and debated, not his excellent work prior to that.
Wicket keeping is a never-ending activity of sorts. A batsman can take it easy after crossing over to the non-striker's end and a bowler can recharge his batteries while returning to his bowling mark, but the wicketkeeper cannot afford to relax at any stage. After the ball has been delivered and the shot played, he has to run up to the stumps and take the throws from the fielders, some of them nasty, others inaccurate, and try and convert them into a run-out.
A budding wicketkeeper has several factors ranged against him. If you see the practice wickets on any cricket ground, you will find in most instances, the rear of the net is so close to the stumps that there will be little room in which a keeper could stand to gain some practice. If the keeper has to practice to a fast bowler, then there should be a distance of at least three to four meters between the stumps and the rear of the net.
Not only is wicket keeping thankless, it is also the most challenging of all the cricketing jobs. It demands lightning reflexes, a sharp eye and peak physical fitness, mental strength and an ability to concentrate for long periods of time. It also helps if the keeper has the knack of encouraging his teammates, especially in situations when things may not be going their way.
Having said all this, the fact is that the wicketkeeper is in the best position to watch and judge everything that is happening on the field. He can detect faults in the batsman and guide his captain and bowlers accordingly.
WHERE TO STAND
There are no hard and fast rules for this. When spinners are bowling, it is customary for the keeper to stand up, within touching distance of the stumps. The distance at which he stands from the stumps depends upon factors like the condition of the pitch (whether the bounce is even or the odd ball is keeping low) and of course, the bowler's pace. It is easier for the keeper to take catches off edges when he is standing back to the fast bowlers than while standing up, as the extra distance enables him to observe the path of the ball and judge its pace, right from the time it leaves the bowler's hand and then flies off the edge of the bat. Stumping opportunities also become rare as the pace increases.
Against bowling of the medium-paced variety, if the keeper reckons that he will be able to judge the flight and pace of the delivery from close to the wickets, then he should stand up. Some medium-pacers also prefer to have their wicketkeepers stand up, even when they are bowling in-swingers at a fairly good speed. The proximity of the keeper will keep the batsman on tenterhooks, as he will be aware that he cannot afford to over-balance while playing forward to an out-swinger. If he misses and over-balances, he runs the risk of being stumped. Having said that, the wicketkeeper who opts / is asked to stand up will have to make incredible saves on the leg side and take nasty cracks on the wrists and the body.
In my opinion, a wicketkeeper should stand where he thinks he can achieve the best results. He should either stand right up or back. The 'no man's land' should be ignored.
HOW TO STAND
Wicketkeepers usually stand with their left foot around the line of the off-stump (to right-handed batsmen), as this position gives them a clear view of the bowler's delivery outside the off-stump. But the position should be flexible. He should stand little wider for a right-handed bowler bowling from round-the-wicket, than for a left-handed bowler operating from round-the-wicket. The objective should be to be able to watch the flight of the ball all the way.
The keeper should feel comfortable, weight evenly balanced between the feet. While standing up, he should be close enough to the stumps to remove the bails with a sweeping movement that does not demand stretching.
When a delivery is pitched wide of the stumps, wicketkeepers tend to move slightly backwards. This should be avoided, because that takes them away from the wickets and makes a stumping harder to achieve. Foot movements should be kept to the barest minimum, confined to the essentials for positioning the body and hands, except when one has to reach out to a really wide delivery. A fault that lower-grade wicketkeepers commit is that they fail to move their bodies in the line of the flight. If a fast bowler bowls a big in-swinger outside the leg-stump, the wicketkeeper should keep in mind the saving of byes, and the possibility of catching a nick on the leg-side. He must immediately pick up the flight and assess what the ball is doing. He should move to the leg-side so that he will be able to take the ball easily, as it will come straight at him. By doing this, not only will he be in a position to collect the ball cleanly, but he will also have a fair bit of margin on the leg-side to go for a catch if the ball is edged.
The same principle holds good for the outswinger. But in this case, it is easier to spot as it goes away from the batsman, and there is no 'blind spot' wherein the batsman obscures his vision. The keeper shouldn't forget to let his hands 'give' the ball. The ball should always be held with the fingers pointing towards the ground. The hands should 'give' slightly as they take the ball, so the risk of injury is minimum.
MOVEMENT AND OBSERVATION
Experience and instinct will prepare the keeper for the type of delivery the bowler will hurl, or a possible chance that the batsman may offer him in the form of an edge or a stumping. He should be able to move swiftly and precisely, and catch, not snatch at the ball out of excitement.
When a quality keeper takes the ball in his palms, the impact of the ball thudding into the gloves produces a soft sound, similar to that produced by a cover-drive that goes straight off the meat of the bat.
It is vital for the keeper to watch the ball right into his gloves. He should place himself in front of the line of the ball while taking it. No player on the field can be as helpful to the captain or the bowler as the stumper. He sees exactly what every ball does, whether it swings in the air or turns off the pitch. The man at square-leg can see the striker play and miss the ball near the off-stump and think that it swung towards the off-side. But he may be wrong. The ball may have gone straight through with the batsman playing inside the line. But the wicketkeeper would have seen everything. A quality keeper will not take a long time to be able to tell the bowler what type of delivery is troubling the batsman.
The primary jobs of the keeper are to take catches, make stumpings and play his part in run-out opportunities. A keeper who is consistent in converting half-chances into dismissals with his agility, anticipation and concentration, should be encouraged.
When there is a run-out chance, the keeper should take position behind the stumps, never in front.
Because of his gloves, a wicketkeeper stands a better chance of taking catches than his teammates. Hence, he should be allowed to go for a catch if he can reach it, be it a snick on the off or leg-side or even a skied mish it.
The most important part, or parts, of the keeper's 'armoury', are his gloves; inner and outer.
The inner gloves should be made of chamois leather and wore when they are slightly damp.
The outer gloves should be heavily padded with finger-stalls and should fit snugly over the top. New gloves, which tend to be stiff, shouldn't be used in a match straightaway. They should be first used in practice to make them pliable.
Wicketkeepers are highly susceptible to injury. The best in the business get hit in the face, on the head and / or body. They encounter wickets of all kinds, some sticky and others with uneven bounce. They can get hit if the ball flies off the top of the stumps after the batsman is bowled, or if the bail flies at them after being dislodged.
The 'occupational hazards' and other challenges should not deter budding wicketkeepers. Keeping wickets gives a cricketer the opportunity to be in the game all the time. A wicketkeeper gets more opportunities to send batsmen back to the pavilion than the other fielders, and hence, he can make all the difference between victory and defeat.
So put on those wicket keeping gloves and leg-guards, and enjoy yourself!