The toughest job in cricket, outside the one performed by the two umpires, is that of the captain. In addition to his visible functions on the playing field involving changes in field placings, effecting bowling changes, motivating the players and be in overall supervision of the conduct and performance of his side, he has to fully concentrate on the game even when off the field. This includes altering the batting order, giving directions to accelerate or decelerate the scoring rate, take decisions relating to declaring the innings and various other matters that have a bearing on the game under progress. His responsibilities outside the playing time start even before the commencement of the match and can stretch to periods after its conclusion as well. It was not for nothing that Steve Waugh stated in his autobiography “Out of My Comfort Zone” that his entire perspective about the game and its conduct underwent a huge change after taking over as captain.
If captaincy is the most difficult job, the most strenuous one on of the field of play is that of the wicketkeeper. He is the key person on the field so far as the bowling side is concerned. He is required to concentrate on each ball, with the same intensity as the batsman taking strike. He usually stands up to the wicket when the spinners are bowling and stays away from the stumps when fast bowlers are operating. But in either position he is required to crouch while the bowler runs into deliver, from which position he gradually rises depending on the pace and bounce of the ball. In effect he performs the equivalent of a squat exercise every time a ball is bowled, which would amount to a total of 300 times in a limited overs match and 540 times in a day's play in a longer duration match. In addition to this, he has to rush towards the stumps every time a run is attempted and also move between wickets at the end of every over. He is also invariably the main motivator and cheerleader of his side, a job that requires great deal of shouting to make himself heard in all corners of the ground. Thus, it is not surprising that the wicketkeeper is the most tired player when his side leaves the field at the close of play or end of an innings.
Wicketkeeper also enjoys a unique position when his side is fielding as he is best placed to gauge the performance of bowlers and batsmen. He is ideally located to identify any lapses in length and line of the bowlers as well as flaws in the technique of batsmen which can be exploited by his side. All captains make it a point to consult the wicketkeeper while taking decisions regarding bowling or field changes. It is also not unusual to find wicketkeepers adjusting the position of fielders, based on his appreciation of the game from his special perch.
These advantages that the wicketkeeper has over other fielders in observing the flow of the game from the best position in the field should normally give him an edge when a captain is chosen. However, cricket history has very few wicketkeepers who have led their national sides. Even at the first class level one finds very few wicketkeepers saddled with the burden of captaincy. This might be on account of the fact that wicketkeeping is a full time job demanding complete focus and attention, leaving him little time for undertaking any other task. The entire focus of a wicketkeeper would be on the ball right from the time the bowler starts his run up and remains so till the ball ceases to be in play. Hence it is only natural that most wicketkeepers tend to use the short gap, between the ball becoming dead and bowler starting his run up to deliver the next ball, to switch off, in order to conserve his energies. This contrasts sharply with the job of captains who are required to observe all the happenings on the field, while simultaneously thinking about opportunities for getting the opposition out quickly.
Conventional wisdom suggested that this single-minded fixation on their first specialized task made wicketkeeper as a class unsuited for leading a cricket side at the international level. Thus, till the turn of the present century there have been very few wicketkeepers who were called upon to lead their national side. The first among them was Jack Blackhead of Australia in 19th century, to be followed by the likes of Baberton Halliwell, Percy Cherwell and Jock Cameron, all of South Africa. In more recent times, Pakistan had Moin Khan and Rashid Latif, while New Zealand had Lee Germon, as captains who were also wicketkeepers. However, the short tenures of these gentlemen at the helm indicate that these were more in the nature of ad hoc arrangements than any long term investments in captaincy. Alec Stewart of England bucked the trend by leading his country in both Tests and limited overs matches while also opening the batting and keeping wickets. However, he was not a regular stumper and took over that job only in the larger interests of his side, much in the manner of Rahul Dravid, who performed that task for India during 2003 World Cup.
It was Mahendra Singh Dhoni who shattered this well entrenched way of thinking by emerging as the most successful and longstanding captain of the Indian side. He was first appointed as captain of national side for the inaugural ICC T20 World Cup in 2007 and led India to an astonishing win. While doing so he impressed one and all by his incredibly original way of thinking and ice cool demeanor. Following this, he was asked to lead the side in limited overs in 2008 and Test match captaincy followed soon thereafter. He led the Test side till 2015 and held the leadership of limited overs side for one more year. During his reign India won all the major championships conducted by the International Cricket Council (ICC) and reached top spot in Test rankings. Dhoni’s captaincy skills were on display in the Indian Premier League also where he led his side Chennai Super Kings, to two title triumphs.
Dhoni was remarkable in that he could combine the twin jobs of captaincy and wicketkeeping with aplomb. He could achieve this as he possesses the amazing ability to compartmentalize the two jobs that he held with exceptional precision. In other words, he would focus solely on the ball from the time the bowler started his run up and retain it so long as the ball was in play. Then he would switch to the captaincy mode and take note of happenings in the field and contemplate about the moves to be made. He would revert back to his wicketkeeping mindset when the bowler reached the top of his mark for the next ball. He could manage this ball after ball, over after over, match after match through the nearly nine years that he was at the helm, without missing a beat. This extraordinary achievement was possible not only because Dhoni was blessed with a sharp cricketing brain which was immune to emotions and other factors that affect lesser mortals such as stress, pressure etc, but also on account of the phenomenal self discipline that he could exercise on himself. The evolution of the institution of a coach also helped in this regard as many of the off the field responsibilities of the captain could be shared with the former, thus lightening the burden on the latter.
Dhoni’s success as skipper of the national side spawned a relook at established wisdom of not appointing wicketkeepers as captains. Sri Lanka was the first country to think along these lines and appointed Kumar Sangakkara as captain in all three formats of the game in 2009. Sangakkara, however, chose not to keep wickets during Tests when he was leading the side. After a two years stint, he stepped down from captaincy saying that “this was a job that ages one quickly!”. Sangakkara was moderately successful as captain and could guide his side to the final of the ICC World Cup in 2011.
The most recent wicketkeeper to be appointed as captain of a national side is Sarfraz Ahmed of Pakistan. Like Dhoni, he was asked to first lead the T20 squad following the retirement of Shahid Afridi in 2016. Subsequently, when Azhar Ali quit captaincy, Sarfraz was appointed as captain of the limited overs’ squad where he showed his mettle by leading Pakistan to a surprise win over India in the final of the recent Champions Trophy in England. Following this, he was nominated as skipper of the Test side as well, post the retirement of Misbah-ul-Haq. Thus, he has trudged the same path as the one taken by Dhoni, both in graduating through T20 and limited overs sides to captaincy of Test side and in leading the country to unexpected victory in an international championship. However, it remains to be seen whether he can emulate the success of Dhoni in Test cricket.
Cricket has traditionally been a batsman’s game and nowhere is this demonstrated more than in selection of captains. While, in theory, any member of the playing eleven can be chosen as captain, it has been the general practice that batsmen have been preferred over others for this job under the specious argument that bowlers tend to over bowl themselves while the wicketkeeper may lose focus on his work behind the stumps, if asked to lead the side. The success of Dhoni, and to a smaller measure, that of Sangakkara, along with the emergence of Sarfraz should hopefully lead to rewriting of the established, if erroneous wisdom, about wicketkeepers not being suited to skipper the side. They too deserve, like all other players, to be considered for the post of captain, and excluding them solely on account of their job profile is unfair. Wicketkeepers of the present and future should thank Dhoni for forcing this change in the mindset of cricket administrators and selectors.
Finally, its is interesting to observe that like in many other aspects of the game in the 21st century, it is Asia who is leading this change in thinking, leaving the other nations to follow suit. Let us await the appearance of many more wicket keeper-captains on the international cricket horizon.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)