Saturday, March 17, 2007

Gutsy Glovemen

Where do these wicketkeepers buy their gall from? Many other cricketers have the stuff too but the keepers’ variety looks like a different brand altogether. It just keeps oozing out of their persona without them trying. That customary chirp with the batsmen, that pep talk for the boys between overs and during them, that nervous energy in anticipation of another pouch – it all comes to them naturally.

Expectedly in a game as mental and lengthy as cricket you get a generous helping of the strong silent types, people who prefer to stack their guts below the stomach and away from the public view. Batsmen contribute the most numbers to this lot, those “give him a bat and he becomes a character” types. But follow a keeper at work and chances are he’ll radiate his pluck even as he repairs the broken stumps. If team performance is a buggy riding on four wheels i.e., batting, bowling, fielding and captaincy, then the wicketkeeper resembles the axle of the 10-spoke fielding wheel. There’s a difference though: the noisier this axle is, the better this wheel functions.

Interestingly in their demeanour they all remind us of one another. It has little bearing on the way each bats. He may be a tear-‘em-apart bat like Gilly / Dhoni, a smart cameo player like Boucher / McCullum, a class act with the willow in the Sangakkara mould or a plain and simple blood and guts man that you want to bat for your life, like West Indian Ridley Jacobs or the inimitable Ian Healy. The rule is same for each of them: give him a pair of gloves and he becomes a character, a kind of second lieutenant who takes control of the players and allows his captain to plan their next move.

There’s a new addition to this lot. It is Paul Nixon of England. He is every inch the wicketkeeper your team needs competing in an event of this magnitude. I am only watching him in action for the first time today as he plays in the second consecutive nail-biter in the making. But I have little doubts that he must have played a significant role in the England we see in this tournament, an England that, though far from dependable, are at least prepared not to be the first ones to blink.

No thought on modern wicketkeepers can be complete without a mention of Khaled Mashud, the Bangladeshi avatar. He is the one who hit a six off the first ball of the final over and remained unbeaten on a 7 ball 15 to finally turn an unforgettable, seesawing, rain-affected 1997 ICC trophy final match against Kenya in his country’s favour, a result that went a long way in waking the cricket world up to Bangladesh and supporting their subsequent claim to Test playing status.

It is ten years hence. The Mashud that played for Bangladesh a year back was already past his prime with bat as well as gloves and it is only logical that a younger man has
replaced Mashud, the last survivor of that 1997 ICC trophy winning side.

If their Group B encounter with India develops into a close call (somehow I get this feeling that it would) - the sort with the underdogs needing quite a few in the nerve-jangling final overs - the Bangla boys would need to summon belief in their ability to pull through from a few sweet memories of the recent past. Memories of the glorious exploits of their ex-gloveman on that 1997 afternoon at Kuala Lumpur should do them no harm in that regard.

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