The Glove Poser - One memorable comment about wicket-keeping came

The Glove Poser

- By Vedam Jaishankar

One memorable comment about wicket-keeping came from former India batsman TE Srinivasan. TE, as he is popularly known, was member of the Indian team on that 1981 twin tour of Australia and New Zealand made famous by the near conceding of the Melbourne Test by Indian skipper Sunil Gavaskar. So peeved was Gavaskar at being adjudged leg before wicket to Dennis Lillee that he very nearly succeeded in forcing fellow-opener Chetan Chauhan to walk off the field in protest.

Harbhajan Singh

The gregarious, TE, who loves to talk and laugh a lot, made his foray into coaching at the end of his playing days. On one occasion, watching an India game, there was this then unusual sight of erstwhile wicket-keeper Nayan Mongia calling for a helmet with protective face grill to stand up to leg spinner Anil Kumble . Those days, the helmet and face grill were not standard wicket-keeping equipment. But with the tall Kumble, who bowls his variety of leg spin and googly at a brisk pace, getting the odd delivery to pop up and turn, Mongia, standing behind the wickets, opted for extra protection.

It was then that TE made his unforgettable remark:

"Standing up to Kumble on these pitches pales into insignificance when compared to what Kiri (former India wicket-keeper Syed Kirmani) used to do. Those were the days we played Ranji Trophy and Duleep Trophy matches on some of the worst pitches. Teams used to get bundled out for 120 to 150 runs. Sometimes even these scores were winning scores!

"On such lousy pitches it was a nightmare batting against Chandra (BS Chandrashekar, India's legendary match-winning bowler who used to bowl his brand of leg spin, top spin and googly at a terrific pace). If one delivery shot through from a length at ankle height, the next one from the same length had to be fended off from the face. Batsmen with a bat in hand, pads and all sorts of protective equipment used to be petrified at playing Chandra on such pitches. But there was Kiri, standing up to the wickets and collecting the ball in all sorts of acrobatic style.

"Certainly he was the greatest-ever wicket-keeper. But my own feeling is you had to be mad or absolutely brilliant to stand up to Chandra on such pitches, and without the benefit of these helmets. To this day I do not know whether Kiri was mad or brilliant. Why, even now when I think of batting against Chandra on such pitches I break into a sweat.'' TE's observation comes to the fore when one takes into account the sad accident that spelt finis to the career of yet another Karnataka wicket-keeper. Sanjay Desai, who along with Roger Binny was involved in a then world record first class opening wicket partnership, used to don the gloves whenever Kirmani was called away on national duty. Desai had played for Indian schools, Indian Universities and was a regular member of the Karnataka team even when the stalwarts were available. This Ranji Trophy match against Andhra was held in Manipal, a small university town near Mangalore. It was not a regular venue for first class cricket. Although Chandrashekar and EAS Prasanna, along with GR Vishwanath, Brijesh Patel and Kirmani, were away in Australia with the Indian team, there was still left arm spinner B Vijayakrishna to spearhead the Karnataka attack.

In that match, Vijayakrishna's `chinaman' went through the last batsman's `gate' and clipped the bails. Desai, standing up, was unsighted by the batsman. The flying bail struck him on the left eye and he permanently lost vision in that eye. Sanjay Desai cut off in his prime by this unfortunate accident on the cricket field, never played the game again. Wicket-keeping, by any yardstick, is a tough job. Anybody who has seen the battering Kirmani's hands and fingers have taken over the years will understand what a toll it takes of the purveyor of this trade. Kirmani's fingers, for instance, are all crooked now. Another Karnataka wicket-keeper of note, Sadanand Vishwanath too took a lot of punishment behind the sticks. Yet, for all the hard work and bruises, a wicket-keeper's job is a thankless one. When he does a good job, few appreciate it, for it is his business to be efficient behind the sticks. But when he makes a small mistake, it is magnified and blown out of proportion. In an era when with slow motion cameras and super slow mo' replays help commentators dissect every fumble or perceived chance, these mistakes are shown again and again until the wicket-keeper is made to look silly.

Did this make Rahul wary of wicket-keeping? That would be a difficult call to make. By nature he is extremely careful and guarded. He weighs the pros and cons in every situation before taking any decision or making a move. And again before he makes a move he dwells on the minus points before committing himself. Alternately, he is not one to flinch from a challenge. It is just that he is not impulsive. When he walks into a challenge he ensures he is thoroughly prepared and hence is seldom caught off guard.

Rahul had kept wickets with some success in his early teens and at the junior level. He was clean and effective without being brilliant. It is possible that his childhood neighbour Sadanand Vishwanath and his brother Santosh Bhavani both of whom were wicket-keepers could have subconsciously prepared him mentally to wicket-keeping. However, it was his coach during the formative years, Keki Tarapore -- incidentally Sadanand's coach earlier -- who introduced him to wicket-keeping. But as Dravid moved into his late teens he grew taller. Now Tarapore always nurtured a theory: tall players do not make for good wicket-keepers. The fact that top notch wicket-keepers Alan Knot, Syed Kirmani, Geoff Marsh, Wasim Bari, et al were relatively short seemed to support his theory. Thus as Rahul shot up to be a six-footer in his late teens, Tarapore had a hand in getting him to concentrate on his batting. However, since he had kept wickets constantly during his formative years, and in junio Rahul, though, was not keen on keeping wickets. Having shunned it at the age of 16 and not having kept for college, club and state, he just could not fathom how he would get to keep for India. On the eve of the 1997-98 season when Rahul was training at the KSCA stadium, I asked him one morning if he had ever thought of donning the gloves again, especially as he was forced to do a little bit of it on the England tour. Rahul looked horrified. I pressed that like Alec Stewart had for England; Rahul could bring a great deal of value addition to the team if he donned the gloves at least in one-day internationals. Rahul's reply revealed that he had already thought this one out in detail, weighed the pros and cons, and rejected it.

"`I kept during my school days and in junior cricket. Keeping at the international level is a totally different ball game altogether. The pulls and pressures make it a full-time job," he said.

When I persisted and stated that the only problem would be to keep to Kumble for 10 overs, the quintessential Rahul came out with a matchless analysis of the difficulties.

"Actually keeping to Kumble would not be that stiff a problem. He is not a big spinner of the ball. It is the subtle variation of pace and spin and the bounce that I would have to cover. The problem would be keeping to Sri (Javagal Srinath). He gets tremendous movement off the seam, even with the new ball. The problem with keeping to Sri is that most of the time the tilt is into the right hand batsman - the unnatural side for me as wicket-keeper. And the angle of the ball keeps widening. I have kept in the nets to him and found that the ball, after passing the batsman, keeps going away on the leg side. This, at his genuine pace would not only test the wicket-keeper, but end up bruising the fingers of his left hand (the right hand batsman's top hand). Unless a wicket- keeper can collect Sri's delivery cleanly all the time, he would end up with broken or bruised fingers."

Since those days, Rahul's value as a batsman has increased tremendously. On many an occasion he is reckoned as the team's number one batsman. And for him to flirt with a trade that exposes his precious left hand to probable injury would be suicidal.

Many purists have denounced the decision to make him keep wickets for the country. This includes Syed Kirmani, India's finest wicket-keeper to date. Kirmani, as the chairman of the National selectors has gone on record that he does not approve of Rahul keeping wickets.

"In my opinion India should unearth a specialist wicket-keeper who can bat a bit as soon as possible. The team management consisting of the skipper, vice-captain and coach and the national selectors have banked on Rahul to keep wickets in one-dayers. Of course the interests of the team come first. But sooner or later the interests of the team would be in ensuring that Rahul is in prime condition to bat at his best and a specialist wicket-keeper is left to do the job behind the stumps," said Kirmani. However, what would always be the amazing aspect of Indian cricket would be how Rahul, who literally gave up wicket-keeping at the age of 16, did not keep for college, club or state, was dragged into keeping for the country after a seven-year break. History would also show the irony of how despite two of India's finest wicket-keepers, Kirmani and Kiran More being in the five-man national selection committee and setting the agenda for team selection, the team's faith was placed on a reluctant wicket-keeper's ability to dig deep into his motivational powers and keep for the country at the highest level.

Rahul has already kept wickets at the World Cup level. There is nothing higher than that. It is one of the quirks of fate that try as he did to give up wicket-keeping, it was something that simply would not go away. When Rahul finally hangs up his boots - or should it be gloves - it would be interesting to see the impact wicket-keeping made on his overall career. Certainly his wicket-keeping saga would rank as the most peculiar cases in the history of the game.

Extracted from Rahul Dravid A Biography by Vedam Jaishankar.