India’s selectors literally scrapped the bottom of the barrel to come up with Parthiv Patel as replacement wicket-keeper in place of the injured Wriddhiman Saha for the third Test against England in Mohali. The selection is as much an indictment of the paucity of wicket-keepers as it is of the short-sighted selections of the past when make-shift or stop-gap wicket-keepers found favour not just for ODIs and T20Is but also Tests.
It is one thing to go through an ODI series with KL Rahul or Robin Uthappa, to name just two, as reserve make-shift wicketkeepers. But what to make of a total of 12 wicketkeepers chosen for Tests in these past 16 years?
Unless one is a die-hard cricket fan, it is possible that many would be hard pressed to recall some names: Nayan Mongia, MSK Prasad, Saba Karim, Vijay Dahiya, Sameer Dighe, Deep Dasgupta, Ajay Ratra, Parthiv Patel, Dinesh Karthik, MS Dhoni, Wriddhiman Saha and Naman Ojha.
Parthiv played a clutch of 19 Tests between 2002 and 2004 and then a solitary one four years later in 2008. Now, eight years later, he would most probably be fitted for one more Test before being packed off when Saha returns for the fourth Test.
Interestingly, barring Mongia who was unceremoniously dumped after unsavoury allegations, and Dinesh Karthik, only Mahendra Singh Dhoni (90) has kept in more Tests than Parthiv in the list of 12.
Parthiv, at 17 years of age, entered the Test scene as the youngest wicket-keeper. He was not the best of the lot behind the stumps. He seemed to crouch on his heels and did not really have good hands. But then the entire world loves a young champion and at 17, he was expected to only get better.
He didn’t do too badly while standing back but handling spinners while standing up to the wickets and on tracks that had variable turn and bounce was another matter altogether. The slow motion and super slow motion television replays of his errors repeatedly replayed on screens only made him to look worse than he really was.
But Parthiv’s batting picked up quite a bit. He showed himself to be feisty customer in Australia and Pakistan and came up with some useful knocks. However these were not enough to cement his place in the team. His work behind the stumps was not inspiring and it was only a matter of time before a more daring, energetic, agile and charismatic MS Dhoni replaced him behind the stumps. Dhoni also had razor sharp reflexes when he first came into the team and the difference between the two stood out in stark contrast.
Parthiv had no chance with Dhoni around. This is probably reflected in the statistics: Dhoni made his debut and quit Tests within a nine-year span and tally of 90 Tests while Parthiv in a 14-year career is not even a quarter of the way.
Parthiv, like many other Indian cricketers, probably benefited more from the IPL. In nine years he has turned out for six teams. His willingness to throw bat at the ball at the top of the innings has worked pretty well, particularly when bowlers have given him width outside off stump or bowled at his legs.
Of course the IPL is hardly the yardstick to judge wicket-keeping skills. Many part-time or occasional wicketkeepers - Robin Uthappa, Rahul, AB de Villiers, Kedar Jadhav, Ambati Rayudu, Sanju Samson - among others have done a fairly commendable job in the 20 overs format. Test cricket, though, would be another test altogether. The wicket-keeper would be exposed to almost everything – swing, seam, spin, reverse swing, yorkers, bouncers, old ball, new ball and of course called to concentrate over long periods of time.
Under these circumstances it would be interesting to see what sort of hard work Parthiv has put in since he was dropped from the Test team. After all the chairman of the selection committee, MSK Prasad, is himself a former India wicket-keeper and he and his team would have surmised that Parthiv Patel would be a better bet as stop-gap replacement than some of the other names floating around.
Delhi’s Rishab Pant, for instance, seems to have been explosive with the bat in Ranji Trophy cricket. He was part of the India A team which was coached by Rahul Dravid and had he excelled or shown potential in wicket-keeping the latter would surely have put in a word to the selectors.
The grim truth is the wicketkeeping cupboard is bare. Who knows a couple of years from now, or earlier if Dhoni wishes to call it a day in ODIs too, Parthiv might still be one of the best around. Now that’s food for thought.