Watching Kumar Sangakkara’s match-winning 134* in the ICC Champions Trophy against England made me realise what a wealth of talent world cricket currently has not just as custodians behind the stumps, but as counter-attackers in front of them.
I’ve always thought of wicket-keepers as drummers in rock bands, there to keep things ticking while the fast bowlers were the lead singers in leather jackets, the focus of every fan’s attention. But the current crop of keepers has forced me to think again.
Take, for instance, swashbuckling South African captain AB de Villiers. He is clearly a head-banging front man, and that’s not because he has his own music video. It’s been two years since he took over the ODI captaincy and he looks set to be Test skipper too. And he’s just one of the many wicket-keepers currently influencing world cricket.
Sangakkara, Matt Prior, MS Dhoni, de Villiers and Brendon McCullum are either captains of, or among the most important players on, their teams. Some are better limited-overs sloggers while others are Test match fulcrums.
But how do they stack up against each other and, probably the greatest keeper of the recent past, Adam Gilchrist? If we compare their batting (runs, average, strike rate, centuries) and keeping (dismissals – catches and stumpings – and dismissals per innings), AB de Villiers seems to come out on top.
The one-day game seems to throw up a three-way battle between the elegant Sangakkara, the athletic de Villiers and the ice cool Dhoni.
For: Eleven thousand runs, most centuries and probably the most aesthetically pleasing stroke-maker.
Against: For a player who has played 321 innings and scored all those runs, he should really have scored more than 15 centuries. The average for a player of his class and ability is also disappointing and his wicket-keeping numbers are also mediocre.
For: Impressive average of almost 52 overall and close to 100 in successful chases. Unparalleled in pressure situations.
Against: Lowest dismissals/innings.
For: Highest strike rate and dismissals/innings. Almost as many centuries as Sangakkara in less than half the innings.
Against: Relatively inexperienced as a keeper
Though it’s hard to pick between the three, de Villiers edges it for me. He has grown into the triple role of being captain, wicket-keeper and batsman, leading South Africa to 16 wins out of 21 and averaging almost 80 since June 2011. Still, as the recent Champions Trophy showed, South Africa still collapse under pressure in big matches, as captain and the buck will stop with him. Dhoni seems a much more assured leader in that sense.
That being said, Gilly would get the nod over both of them from my point of view. Gilchrist had to keep wickets for both huge turners like Shane Warne and Stuart McGill and bouncy pacers like Brett Lee and Glenn McGrath. 16 centuries, an astonishing strike rate of 97 and the highest dismissals/innings of all time make him my number one.
The Test arena is an interesting battle – and one where Dhoni does not feature as highly.
For: Runs are, again, head and shoulders above the competition but this time his incredible average of 57 and 33 centuries match them.
Against: 2nd lowest dismissals per innings.
For: Tops today’s keeping charts with 2.115 catches or stumpings per innings. Second only to Sangakkara in runs, average and centuries.
Against: Inexperienced – lowest number of dismissals.
For: Excellent strike rate (though still nowhere near Gilchrist’s!), named England’s player of the year for 2012/13 and averaged 71 across the India and New Zealand series.
Against: lowest dismissals/innings
In the Test arena, it’s a tough call between de Villiers and Sangakkara. In my opinion, one thing that really sets the Test match batsman apart is his ability to score runs away from home. Sangakkara’s average falls drastically to (a still world-class) 50 away from the slow turners of Sri Lanka whereas de Villiers’ increases to 58.
The recent South Africa tour of Australia highlighted AB’s temperament. After the first Test, former Aussie keeper Ian Healy said (about de Villiers keeping wicket) “I do think it's going to take some effectiveness out of his batting”. AB proved his doubters wrong emphatically. On the final day of the 2nd Test at Adelaide, he blocked 220 balls for just 33 runs to help save the match. In the following game, he smashed 169 off 184 balls to set up a series win.
Though he has only claimed one-tenth of the dismissals his legendary compatriot Mark Boucher did, his athleticism and hand-eye coordination make him even more effective per innings. De Villiers is new to keeping and from the look of things, his agility and balance should stand him in good stead for the rest of his career. However, as Healy pointed out, his keeping is yet to be fully tested on slow, spinning wickets – though South Africa don’t have any top quality spinners to test him! De Villiers' big weakness is his lack of stumpings: just 3 stumpings out of 83 dismissals in ODIs and 2 out of 55 in tests. Compare that to Dhoni's 69/280 in ODIs and 36/248 in tests.
I think what sets him apart is his versatility across formats. He may not be outright numero uno in Tests or ODIs, but he challenges nonetheless. Even in T20s, de Villiers pushes Dhoni close (the Indian has a better average and strike rate) but I don’t think the sample size of IPL/T20 games is enough to make a informed comparison. Though he was overshadowed by Kohli and Gayle in this year’s IPL, he has been a successful player for RCB too – who can forget how he smashed Dale Steyn last year or how he hit a reverse sweep for six?
Playing a shot like that requires you to be an all-round athlete: his balance, the hand-eye coordination and forearm strength are stunning. He can save Test matches, anchor ODI innings and improvise under IPL floodlights. AB can do it all. And that’s why he’s my first among equals.