Cricket

Published on September 13th, 2017 | by Anindya Dutta

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Who is the greatest wicketkeeper the Indian subcontinent ever produced?

🕓 Reading time:6 minutes

The Indian subcontinent has long been known to produce some incredibly talented batsmen.

There is no ‘Greatest of All Time World XI’, even today, that would not have Sunil Gavaskar opening the batting. It would be a brave compiler indeed that would keep Sachin Tendulkar out of such a side. Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Mahela Jayawardene, Inzamam ul-Haq, Javed Miandad, Mohammad Yousuf, Zaheer Abbas, and many others would all appear in one list or the other depending on who was compiling this list and what criteria they employed for the selection.

If you talk about bowlers, the names of Imran Khan, Kapil Dev, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis among pace bowlers and Muralitharan, Anil Kumble, Bishan Bedi, Rangana Herath and many others would make one or more of such lists.

But what about the wicket keeper, that breed of under-appreciated and much-maligned individuals who is the only player in focus every ball of an innings in a Test match?  Who, I asked myself, are the best wicketkeepers in Test cricket to emerge from the subcontinent?

To even start such an analysis, what criteria would one employ to come up on the way to a conclusion?

To begin with, there has to be a base criterion that keeps the size of any list manageable. In this instance, I decided to take 50 dismissals (including catches and stumpings) in Test cricket as a wicketkeeper, as the minimum that would allow a player to be eligible for this analysis.

Top 5 Wicketkeepers based on No. of Dismissals

But surely it cannot be just catches taken and successful stumpings completed? When you compare across generations as the role of wicketkeepers has evolved, this would be unfair to some and overly favourable to others. If however, this were the only criterion, the job would be a simple one indeed.

In terms of the maximum number of dismissals (catches and stumpings together), the list would read as follows:

 

Rank Wicketkeeper (Country) # Dismissals # Tests
1 MS Dhoni (India) 294 90
2 Wasim Bari (Pakistan) 228 81
3 Kamran Akmal (Pakistan) 206 53
4 Syed Kirmani (India) 198 88
5 P Jayawardene (Sri Lanka) 156 58

That list would indeed be unfair to the likes of Kumar Sangakkara for example who comes in 6th position on that list with his 151 dismissals from the 60 of his 134 Tests when he actually kept wickets.

Top 5 Wicketkeepers based on Dismissals per innings

So should the criteria then be Dismissals per innings? That sounds a bit more reasonable because you can then start equalizing the impact of the number of matches played. The list would now look like this if we use this new basis for selection.

 

Rank Wicketkeeper (Country) Dismissals/Innings
1 Kamran Akmal (Pakistan) 2.08
2 Rashid Latif (Pakistan) 1.88
3 Adnan Akmal (Pakistan) 1.88
4 Saleem Yousuf (Pakistan) 1.79
5 MS Dhoni (India) 1.77

That list is quite curious in a few respects.

Have Pakistani wicketkeepers really been so outstanding and so dominant since 1932 when India first played Test cricket and Pakistan did so in 1952 for the first time as an independent nation, to occupy 4 of the first 5 slots? If so why does Wasim Bari, perhaps one of the finest glove men in his generation of Test cricket appear only in 10th position and Imtiaz Ahmed who kept wickets for the first ten years of Pakistani Test cricket history lag behind in 16th position? Incredibly, one of the most effective and dominant wicketkeepers of Pakistan across generations, Moin Khan scrapes the bottom at 21 out of 23 players on the list using this criterion.

It also plays down the unbelievable effort of MS Dhoni whose ratio is 1.77 given the fact that he kept wickets for 166 innings but ranks 3 places below Rashid Latif who only kept in 69.

It is also worth considering that of all the teams we are looking at here – India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh it has been Pakistan which has always been the bowling side dominated by some of the best fast bowlers in the world. The likes of Abdul Qadir and Saqlain Mushtaq have been more the exception than the rule. India and Sri Lanka have relied primarily on its spin bowlers over the years notwithstanding some notable exceptions like Kapil Dev, Zaheer Khan and Chaminda Vaas.

Given that between 80-90% (statistically speaking from this list) of wicketkeeping dismissals have been catches, the skew towards Pakistani wicketkeepers having the highest number of dismissals per innings becomes more understandable. After all, the probability of finding an edge behind the stumps exponentially increases when a fast bowler is in operation rather than a spinner.

If we dismiss this criterion as not entirely usable for a fair analysis, it is perhaps time to look at how the role of the wicketkeeper has changed thanks to the emergence of two incredible exponents of the game in world cricket in the current millennium – Adam Gilchrist and MS Dhoni. These two men have in the company of others like Sangakkara, completely transformed the profile of the wicketkeeper by making batting an integral part of the puzzle. Tt is indeed a fact that today many Test teams make their choice of wicketkeeper based as much on the keeping abilities as their batting prowess.

Top 5 Wicketkeepers based on Batting Prowess

So should the qualities as a batsman be the first determinant of our elite list of best wicketkeepers to emerge from the subcontinent?

Before the purists dismiss this point of view, it is worth having a look at how the list would look if we picked up the best batsmen (based on their batting average) among our elite group of 23 subcontinent wicketkeepers with 50 or more dismissals against their name. For the purposes of this exercise, in order to focus on their batting contribution, for the moment we ignore the impact of their wicketkeeping.

Adjusting the incredible batting numbers of Kumar Sangakkara to take into account only the 60 Tests (among the 134) where he played as a wicketkeeper-batsman, the list would look as follows:

 

Rank Wicketkeeper (Country) Batting Average # Tests # Centuries
1 Kumar Sangakkara (Sri Lanka) 46.90 60 9
2 Kamran Akmal (Pakistan) 41.00 39 8
3 MS Dhoni (India) 40.96 36 3
4 Rashid Latif (Pakistan) 38.09 90 9
5 Mushfiqur Rahim (Bangladesh) 35.65 56 5

That is an interesting list indeed.

Using this criterion, for the first time a Bangladeshi wicketkeeper makes it into this list. It is a reflection of just how good a player Mushfiqur is that he makes it to this elite list notwithstanding the fact that for his entire career Bangladesh have been among the minnows of world cricket and have always faced up to superior bowling attacks in the few Tests that they have played.

While Sangakkara’s right to be on top of this list is unquestionable given his incredible career average of 57.40 which has been ignored here, it is perhaps a travesty that with his batting prowess and record MS Dhoni appears only in fourth position. It is also regrettable that a Farokh Engineer or a Syed Kirmani who were ahead of their times as extremely competent batsmen besides being ranked among the fine wicketkeepers in the world at the time, miss out on this list.

So what is the right methodology?

Having now gone through the different criteria that one can employ while evaluating the best wicketkeepers to emerge from the Indian subcontinent, it is perhaps time to consolidate our findings and define a more equitable and reasonable way to come up with the final list that takes care of all the aspects that go into the making of the best wicketkeepers.

Here we enter the realm of subjectivity, and as the compiler, it is time for me to exercise my judgement in coming up with criteria that will pass muster among the discerning readers of this piece.

It is a fact that the basis for selection of wicketkeepers for a Test team has changed. While not as obvious as a change for the limited overs formats, Test cricket is not immune to this way of looking at team selection. Every Test team is populated by a first choice wicketkeeper who bats in the middle order rather than coming in at the start of the tail. One will also be hard pressed to find a single wicketkeeper in today’s Test teams (with the notable exception of Matthew Wade of Australia) who has an average below 30.

So while not the main criteria for selection, batting prowess is a very important one today in Test cricket in the selection of a first choice wicketkeeper. It is perhaps justified then to make the assumption that very broadly the weight given to batting should be 40%.

Given the fact that between 80-90% of the dismissals credited to a wicketkeeper are from the catches they take, it is perhaps acceptable to continue clubbing both catches and stumpings under the heading of ‘dismissals’. Also noting from the analysis above that rather than taking the total number of dismissals given not all wicketkeepers may have received the same opportunity to stay in the team as others (one could, for example, argue that MS Dhoni stayed longer in the team than he would have under other circumstances because he was captaining the side capable), it is fairer to use the criterion of ‘Dismissals per innings’. So let us give this criterion 60% weight in our final analysis of the best wicketkeepers.

And the Best Wicketkeepers are…..

Using the weighting above, i.e. 60% for wicketkeeping (Dismissals per innings) and 40% for batting (batting average) and applying them to the rankings achieved earlier, here is what the final list of the Indian subcontinent’s best wicketkeepers in history looks like:

 

Rank Wicketkeeper (Country) The Numbers
1 Kumar Sangakkara (Sri Lanka) 60 Tests, 151 Dismissals, 46.90 BA
2 Kamran Akmal (Pakistan) 53 Tests, 206 Dismissals, 30.79 BA
3 MS Dhoni (India) 90 Tests, 294 Dismissals, 38.09 BA
4 Rashid Latif (Pakistan) 37 Tests, 130 Dismissals, 28.77 BA
5 Sarfraz Ahmed (Pakistan) 36 Tests, 112 Dismissals, 40.96 BA

When one compiles lists such as this across generations, especially in a scenario where the selection criteria have clearly evolved, there is never going to be agreement or indeed one correct answer to the question of who was the best.

Nonetheless, given that wicketkeepers as a breed have been less analysed than others, particularly within the context of the subcontinent, it is interesting to put forward the results and see the reactions of readers and pundits alike to these results.

Let the debate begin!

Note: BA = Batting Average

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About the Author

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Anindya Dutta is the bestselling author of the book 'Spell-binding Spells" on magnificent bowling spells, and a passionate cricket observer and columnist on a number of websites and journals around the world. His obsession is cricket history and he has also authored the book 'A Gentleman's Game-Reflections on Cricket History'. He tweets @Cric_Writer



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