It can never be said enough: Test cricket is a game of specialists. The players picked need to be outstanding in the primary skill they are selected for, and if they can contribute in another area, great. If not, no big deal.
That is not just true for batsmen and bowlers, but also for wicketkeepers. The player selected to don the gloves has to be, first and foremost, excellent behind the stumps. All other aspects – scoring runs, supporting the bowlers, chirping at the batsmen, helping with setting the field etc, are just a bonus. However, since Adam Gilchrist redefined the role of the wicketkeeper, every team has been on the look out, not for wicketkeepers who can bat reasonably well, but batsmen who also have the athleticism to be wicketkeepers.
Matthew Wade, the primary wicketkeeper in the touring Australian side, fits the latter description. He made his arrival on the national scene through his exploits with the bat and not for technical proficiency with the gloves. According to his ESPNcricinfo profile, his call up to the national limited overs side “was no surprise after the summer in which (he) was the second-leading run scorer in the Ryobi Cup”. It also says that Wade kept “tidily” in the T20s and ODIs for Australia, hardly a stamp of approval for his primary role in the side as wicketkeeper.
Wade, a survivor of testicular cancer at the age of 16, made the Test team in 2012 when Brad Haddin had to withdraw from the tour of the West Indies on personal grounds. His “tidy” keeping, and a maiden Test hundred in his third Test allowed him to have an extended run of 11 Tests in the side till he missed the Mohali Test in 2013 due to an ankle injury. Even though he reclaimed his spot for the following Test at Delhi, he was left out of the Ashes squad soon after, for his predecessor Haddin.
When Haddin called it a day after the opening Test of 2015 Ashes, it was Peter Nevill from New South Wales that was preferred for the job. Nevill's skills and footwork behind the stumps were exemplary, and that of a specialist. No one really used “tidy” to describe his work with the gloves as he was picked in the side for his wicket-keeping skills and not his ability with the bat, although he did average 22 in 17 Tests.
Charles Davis, a cricket statistician from Melbourne, wrote in The Cricket Monthly about tracking the missed chances. Based on the data available from December 2008 to January 2016, wicketkeepers miss about 15% of the chances (catches/stumpings) whereas Nevill's miss rate was just 7%. He was that good! Yet, when South Africa pasted Australia in Perth and in Hobart in 2016, Nevill got the axe and Wade got another opportunity. Darren Berry, former Victorian wicketkeeper called Nevill the “best wicketkeeper in the country” and that he paid the price for the failing Australian batsmen.
It's not like Wade has lit the scoreboard on fire either. He has scored 50 runs at an average of 12.5 in the four Tests since he was recalled at Adelaide. He averaged under 20 in the three Tests he played in India in 2013 as well with just one half century.
With only the part-timer, Pete Handscomb, in the squad with any wicketkeeping skills, Wade is expected to be the main man on this four-Test series. He is sure to keep to a lot more spin bowling than back home, with Australia expected to play both Nathan Lyon and Steven O'Keefe. In his essay, Davis wrote about the difficulty of keeping to spinners. Spin bowling “presents a much greater challenge for keepers. Miss rates for leading wicketkeepers off spinners average around 30%, for both catches and stumpings, but it is only 10% for catches off pace bowlers. It can certainly be argued that keeping to spinners is the true test of a keeper.”
And so, this will truly be a test of Wade's supposedly improved glove skills and footwork. He will be further tested by the energy-sapping Indian conditions, a partisan crowd, and playing surfaces that misbehave. He will be judged not by the runs he makes but by the number of chances he lets go.
Just cast your mind back to India's last Test versus Bangladesh. Mushfiqur Rahim fluffed a simple stumping chance and his opposite number, Wriddhiman Saha benefitted from it to smack his second Test century. It is a lesson that India picked Saha back in the side as soon as he was fit, even as his replacement Parthiv Patel scored runs in his absence but wasn't just as good with the gloves.
Ideally, on a tough tour like India, it should have been someone like Nevill, with orthodox wicketkeeping abilities that was preferred but Australian management and selectors have instead been convinced Wade's slightly better batting abilities was worth the risk. As the 140-year history of Test cricket has shown us, there is really no pace to hide on the field and limitations get exposed ruthlessly.