Firstpost Masterclass: Stance, speed, and solid base, Deep Dasgupta breaks down nuances of wicketkeeping

  • Shantanu Srivastava
  • June 18th, 2020
  • 16:06:21 IST

Editor's note: Professional sport is as much a scientific pursuit as it is a recreational wonder. What appears routinely mundane is a result of the hours spent honing the craft and deciphering the body mechanics till it becomes a monotonous muscle memory. In Firstpost Masterclass, our latest weekly series, we look at precisely these aspects that make sport a far more intriguing act than we know.

Deep Dasgupta grew up idolising Sunil Gavaskar, although his primary role was that of a wicketkeeper. A right-handed batsman, Deep represented India in eight Tests spread across South Africa, India and West Indies in the early 2000s before transitioning into commentary. Deep is regarded as an astute reader of the game, and has made a successful foray in online coaching on his website. Here, he breaks down the technical aspects of wicketkeeping.

How did cricket happen to you and what are your earliest memories of the game?

I am from the '83 generation; I was six when India won their first World Cup, so you know, I was old enough to comprehend what was happening around me. Then '85 happened and India won the World Championship of Cricket. Those years, everyone was talking about cricket, from family to relatives to friends, everyone was just hooked on to the game. Like any other kid, I always wanted to play cricket. I remember we were staying in Delhi then. My brother, who is nine years elder to me, was an athlete and he used to go to National Stadium for training. I was too young to be left alone at home, so I was sent along with my brother.

Back then, they had a rule that didn't allow kids under 11 or 12 years of age to enroll for cricket. The only sport I could enroll in as a six-year-old was gymnastics, so I started with that, though my heart was with cricket. After a month, I would finish my gymnastics warm-ups and run to the cricket nets and just watch children train. A few more months passed by when coach Gursharan Singh noticed me and asked me why did I just stand in a corner and watch. I explained the situation to him, and he allowed me in the nets. Since I could not be officially inducted, I used to stand and observe, and at the end of the session, Gursharan sir would give me some catching practice. Slowly, things got serious and the journey started.

Were you always keen on keeping wickets?

Something that I realised very early was that I can't bowl. What I really enjoyed the most was diving around, messing about, taking catches. I was primarily into batting when I was 7-8 years old, but I realised I was getting bored when I was not batting. Fielding at some far corner didn't excite me, so I started wicketkeeping. It made me feel more involved. I was always in the thick of things, and it appeared quite a cool thing to do.

Do you remember your Test debut? How was the experience of getting the Test cap for the first time?

Yes, I vividly remember that. Back then, there was no such tradition of handing over the Test cap. You were simply told that you were playing. My debut came as a bit of an accident as I was not supposed to play. Sameer Dighe was supposed to play that Test against South Africa in Bloemfontein, but on the morning of the match, he had back spasms. I was not due to play, so I was giving catching practice to someone, but from the corner of my eye, I could see Sameer holding his back and talking to (skipper) Sourav Ganguly. Then I saw Ganguly, all dressed in his Test whites and team sheet in his hand, going for the toss. He stopped near me and told me I was playing. That was that.

How did the feeling sink in?

Everything happened just so quickly. Ganguly told me I was playing and went for the toss. I don't remember whether we won the toss or not, but we batted first. Every player has his or her pre-game routines, so I went through mine quickly and got ready. The next thing I know, I was padding up for batting because I was due to come next after that Sachin (Tendulkar) - (Virender) Sehwag partnership. So before I could realise and let the feeling sink in, I was very much in the game. The whole feeling sunk in at the end of day's play when I returned to my hotel room.

Even my family was surprised to suddenly see me on TV because they knew I was not expected to play. I remember my elder brother telling me that I am a Test cricketer now, and that is something no one can ever take away from me. That is when it hit me. As it happens in India, playing cricket for the country is a dream for most kids growing up, and it was no different for me. To realise that dream in my early 20s was special.

Let's talk about wicketkeeping. An important part of a keeper's job is to constantly chat, either with the batsman or the fielders. What if someone is not a talkative person by nature? Does one need to develop that habit?

Not really. I won't call myself chatty or an extrovert. Look at MS Dhoni, for that matter. But then, there are some guys who are naturally chatty, such as Dinesh Karthik, or Parthiv Patel, or Rishabh Pant. With time, you realise that it (talking) is a part of the job. You are the virtual fielding captain of the are a leader. So even if you are not naturally talkative, the job will make you one.

"In the last 30 odd years, not many wicketkeepers have been part of the media or broadcast," says Deep Dasgupta, one of the few 'keepers who seem to have broken the mould. Image credit: Twitter/@DeepDasgupta7

"In the last 30 odd years, not many wicketkeepers have been part of the media or broadcast," says Deep Dasgupta, one of the few 'keepers who seem to have broken the mould. Image credit: Twitter/@DeepDasgupta7

They say you don't notice a wicketkeeper unless he/she commits an error. In a way that is a nice thing to say, but do you think keepers, in general, are appreciated enough?

No, they are not. We keep saying that wicketkeeping is a thankless job, but more than that, I think the nuances of keeping are not spoken enough of. Not many people in the media try to get a wicketkeeper's viewpoint. We are used to looking at the game from a batsman or a bowler's perspective. If you look at the media in the last 30 odd years, you'll see not many wicketkeepers have been part of the media or broadcast. Things are obviously changing slowly, but as I said, not enough is spoken about or written about the nuances of wicketkeeping. We need more keepers talking about the game.

Broadly speaking, what are the key ingredients of a good wicketkeeper?

I think there are two parts to technique - negotiable and non-negotiable. Aspects like soft hands and getting up with the ball are very important. A major problem in India is there are not enough keeper-coaches. Things like getting up with the ball and soft hands are very vague points that people keep talking about, but how do you define them? There are many things that are a given, but there's not enough explanation. Look at MS Dhoni. It's a given that you must wait for the ball, but Dhoni does the exact opposite - he goes towards the ball. He is able to do that because he has got thick palms and soft hands that absorb the shock. Now, a lot of young keepers try to emulate that, but they don't understand what is needed to be done to make that happen.

One of the main non-negotiables is non-movement. I am of a firm belief that you do not need to move. The more you move, the more you are likely to err. Getting up with the ball is again a non-negotiable, as is having a good attitude. If you don't have the right mindset or attitude, keeping wickets will become really tough for you.

Are the basics of wicketkeeping same as that of batting - you ought to keep eye on the ball, have a still head, minimal movement and so on?

Absolutely. The basics are the same. For example, in batting, you can't be falling over in your stance, and it is the same in wicketkeeping. Your bodyweight must not go beyond the balls of your feet. Any further, and you'll topple over. There are slight changes of course, but the template remains the same. Likewise with movement. You don't move a lot while batting, do you? It is the same in keeping; you move only when you are required to.

Like batting, is visualisation an important part of wicketkeeping?

Yes, it is, especially when you are expected to keep to an unknown bowler on an unknown track. For example, if you are keeping to Anil Kumble and you are not sure of how much spin the track will offer, you tend to visualise the bounce and where would you be collecting balls. As a player, I visualised collecting balls more than the dismissals, because I knew the latter will happen along the way.

I would visualise edges also. The key is to try to slow down the process as much as possible and visualise the ball coming and hitting the outside edge. These are all self-talks. Till my early 20s, we had not heard of these things. Such terminology became popular only in the last decade or so. We did what we did. We just asked someone to throw balls at us and we caught.

Back then, there was not a lot of thinking about the game as compared to today. People talk a lot about batting and bowling techniques these days, but back in my growing-up years, you just did what you heard. You just got up with the ball, but I never realised what 'gets up with the ball is'. Is it your backside, your hands, head, what? Same with hard hands. What does that mean? So at that point of time, there were all kind of terms floating around and you would just follow. You would say, 'okay, I am fumbling because I have hard hands,' but we would never realise what hard hands meant and what are the ways to correct it.

So how do you actually rise with the ball? With spinners, one can understand that you can rise with the bounce. How do you rise with the ball with fast bowlers?

For pacers, I tell the kids not to sit completely. One of the non-negotiables in wicketkeeping is the power position, which is the squat position. The longer you stay in that position, the better you are. My point is, for a fast bowler, why do you really have to go all the way down? Why can't you be in that squat position which is more relaxed and less tough on your muscles?

"In my playing days, we were just told to rise with the ball, but noone told us what actually rises with the ball." Image courtesy: Twitter/@DeepDasgupta7

"In my playing days, we were just told to rise with the ball, but noone told us what actually rises with the ball." Image courtesy: Twitter/@DeepDasgupta7

If you are all the way down, you put needless stress on your knee and hip joints, and moreover, you'll have to come back to that squat position anyway, so why sit at all? I think you are just wasting energy if you are sitting and getting up to that squat position. You don't have to go down once you are up and your hands will be down anyway to take low takes. So for seamers or pacers, there is no reason why keepers should go all the way down. If you are keeping for 90 overs, the stress builds up and at the end of the day, you'll start feeling it. I still have a tight adductor, because I was always told to squat all the way down.

How important is the stance? How much further apart should the feet be and how should one balance bodyweight on the feet?

The distance between the feet should be what comes naturally to you. Everyone has a natural balance. When you are standing normally, the distance between your two feet will be different from mine. That's the distance that I'd recommend, because if you are not in that natural position, your body will automatically want to get in that position and you'll subconsciously make that foot movement to get in that position. That's why you see so many wicketkeepers making little movements with either their left foot or their right foot, because their bodies are not in a resting, comfortable position. So the distance between the feet should be same as what you'd otherwise naturally maintain in, let's say, standing and talking to someone.

Talking about balancing your weight, the bodyweight should be on the balls of the feet. By balls of the feet, I don't mean the toes. It is where the heel of your shoe is in contact with the ground but the heel itself is not that much in touch with the ground. If you close your eyes and stand with your bodyweight naturally distributed on your feet and move slightly forward, you'll realise the heel goes up just a little bit...that's that. Anything more, and you'll topple over; anything less, and your bodyweight goes back. That exact point is somewhere near the arch. The arch is your mid-point and the bodyweight is just a little further up. That's the ideal position to distribute your weight.

Let's talk about hands. You spoke about soft hands, but what if someone is fidgety by nature or doesn't have that optimal 'softness' in his/her hands? How does one attain that?

Ideally speaking, I would give such guys enough practice to help them achieve the ideal softness. It is all about the feel. You pick a bat and you like are not bothered about its weight or size. Then, over a period of time, you understand that there is a pattern to what you like. Similarly, bowlers select the ball with their feel; the seam looks good, the ball feels balanced in the hand and so on. It's the same with wicketkeeping. It's like you're catching a raw egg. You are looking to caress the ball while you catch it. The idea is not to let the ball hit you with a thud. You let it come. Once you start catching it often, you get a feel for it. You start visualising, you develop a rhythm. Finding that feel and rhythm is very important.

Is there a sweet spot in the palm also? Some people catch with their fingers, some with their palm, how does that work?

Never ever catch with fingers, is what I'd suggest. Never. Catching with both hands is half and half. There definitely is a sweet spot inside the palm. It starts from the area under the little finger. It is the inside part of the palm. That's where one should look to catch the ball using both hands.

Let's look at MS Dhoni. Like you suggested, against spinners, he sometimes goes at the ball instead of waiting for it, and it has helped him effect some great stumpings. Is this trait natural or can it be cultivated over time?

I think it can be developed, for sure. The most important thing is you have to have really soft hands. At the point of impact, your hands have to be as supple as possible. MS Dhoni has thick palms, and he has got good cushioning in his palms, all of which is natural. However, you can try and achieve that suppleness and softness with a lot of practice with a tennis ball or soft ball. That's how you develop soft hands. Your hands can't be hard at the point of impact.

MS Dhoni's thick palms, soft hands and sharp reflexes help him effect unbelievable stumpings. Reuters/File

MS Dhoni's thick palms, soft hands and sharp reflexes help him effect unbelievable stumpings. Reuters/File

What about your hand position while receiving the ball? Does one collect in front of the body or beside the body, and why?

I am a firm believer in catching beside the body. It is something that I struggled with at the start of my career. You will manage on Indian tracks because the bounce here is usually below the waist and knees, but once the ball starts bouncing a little more, you'll be cramped for room. At waist height or below, your hands still have the room to go back, but you will be stuck if it bounces more. Collecting the ball beside the body is a habit you must develop, irrespective of the track you are keeping on. Also, you can follow the ball better. You can ride the bounce, ride the turn, your body can move better. Once you place your hands 'inside' the body, you are not as mobile.

How does a wicketkeeper avoid confusion with the first slip? We see a number of catches going between the keeper and the first slip. How does one avoid that?

In match situations, you just go for every catch. You can't mark a territory, because you don't have time to think. You develop these things during training, when you practice with the first and the second slips. You have to develop a rapport with the slips. You decide the distance you want, how much you can dive, and so on.

They say, for keepers, it helps to be short. Do you agree? How much does that help?

Yes, it does help. Shorter people are more agile because they have a lower centre of gravity. There's no doubt about that. But as someone who was on the taller side, I'd say the trick is to stay lower. You must have strong legs and make sure you don't get up.

What is the trick in keeping to spinners and which ones really tested you?

There are some principles that you must apply against spinners, and even against fast bowlers. Don't get behind the ball, make sure your hips get up early, your hands should get up with the ball, make sure you're not moving too much...maybe half a step on the off-side. For leg side, you should be able to decide when to move. Ideally, it should be as late as possible. These are the checkpoints that I have figured out with experience and trial and error.

Among the spinners that tested me, Anil (Kumble) and Bhajji (Harbhajan Singh) were brilliant. They tested everyone... the batsmen, the keeper, the slips. When I was keeping to them at the start of my career, I was doing just what I was taught... get up with the ball and stuff. Obviously, I was late in getting up, because I did not know what actually 'gets up with the ball was'. I was getting stuck very often as almost each ball would bounce above my waist. Over time, I worked that out, but it was obviously too late by then. My last series was in Australia, and I kept in a few side games. By that time, I had changed my keeping style. I wouldn't squat all the way down, I wouldn't move a lot.

People talk a lot about the footwork too, but I think footwork is overrated. How much do you really need to move? It is the timing of the movement that is important, but that is different from the movement itself. If you are keeping to a fast bowler, how much do you actually move? Perhaps one body length. If you start moving at the time the batsman has edged, you can't dive. You won't be in the correct position. I developed these things quite late in my career, but I tell them to kids.

A lot of wicketkeepers stand behind the wickets when they keep to pacers, and beside the stumps when they keep to spinners. Is that to judge the ball path better or something else?

The whole concept is quite simple: You have to see the path of the ball. I don't care where you stand, but you should be able to see the path of the ball for the longest time. The idea is to watch the ball whether you stand on the off-stump or outside the off-stump. You can catch the ball only after you watch it. You should look to stand in a position that negates the blind spot.

Growing up, we were told that for an off-spinner, the keeper's left foot should be on the left of off stump. But if a right-arm spinner goes round the wicket to a right-hander and your left foot is outside off, the batsman will be right in front of you and you can't spot the ball. Then you start thinking what if I go further towards the off side, but what if the bowler drops one on the leg side and I can't manage? If you're standing on the off-stump, you are not watching the ball anyway. It's better to stand outside off, even if you are not in line with the ball. As long as you watch the ball, you will gather it because that's what you are trained for. When you watch the ball, your body will instinctively follow it. If your foot doesn't go, your hands will go, and if they can't go, you'll dive, but you will catch the ball.

How important is the communication between the wicketkeeper and the bowler? Should bowlers tell the keepers if they are going to try a variation or a different line?

The communication between bowler and wicketkeeper is very important. Spinners these days bowl a lot of variations and it is very important that as a keeper, you work that out with them. Keepers, anyway are taught to pick variations from the hand. One of the first things I did after making my India debut was ask Anil and Harbhajan to bowl 12 deliveries at me in the nets at the end of each session. I'd ask them to bowl all their variations, so that I could read them from the release point. That's the reason very few wicketkeepers have problems reading googlies and variations, because we are trained to read balls from the release.

With pacers, it is the other way round. The wicketkeeper is the first person to realise that the ball is reversing, so you tell the captain and the bowler. So yes, communication is a critical part of wicketkeeping.

Do you think that the focus is shifting from wicketkeeper-batsman to batsman-wicketkeeper? Does the trend worry you?

Not really. I think the focus has always been on batting for the last 20-30 years. How does a wicketkeeper first come into the limelight? People come to know about a young, upcoming keeper only after he has scored runs. You don't publish a wicketkeeper's name in the newspaper for taking two brilliant catches. You score a ton and you get your name in papers. That's how the word spreads, and you begin watching his/her batting. That's when you realise that he/she is a good keeper as well. That's how the process is.

Did you take your batting as seriously as your wicketkeeping, and did your keeping instincts help you in your batting in any way?

Yes, absolutely. I was one of those guys who hated standing around doing nothing. That was one of the reasons why I took up wicketkeeping. If I was practising for three hours, I made sure I learned something.

As for keeping helping my batting, yes, definitely that was the case. As I said, we (wicketkeepers) are good at reading variations and swing. That's why a lot of wicketkeepers are good at opening the innings or against the new ball. If you have kept wickets for 50 overs, you know the pitch better than anyone else. You know the turn and bounce, how the pitch is behaving, and all these make things easier when you bat.

You opened in Tests for India, and a number of times after keeping wickets for long periods. Should keepers be made to or asked to open, especially in Test matches, because of the stress involved?

That's the biggest challenge - the stress of keeping wickets all day and then coming out to bat. You are talking about Test cricket where if your bat or feet are late even by split second, that would be the difference between the middle of the bat and edge of the bat. That is what makes opening extremely difficult in Tests (for wicketkeepers). Then, you are mentally drained out too.

While keeping in West Indies, you once dropped Carl Hooper and he went on to score a double hundred. We have the example of Kiran More, who dropped Graham Gooch and then went on to score a triple ton. How does one get over such instances?

It is difficult to get over, honestly. It was one of those qualities that I took a while to learn. You don't realise these things much at the domestic level, but at the international level, it is very, very difficult. But, you need to handle that. It was tough for me to take. There was a span of 6-8 months between that series in the West Indies and the one against Australia, which gave me time to sit back and relook at the entire process. That's when I thought that it is okay. Everyone drops catches, that is part of the game. One of my favourite wicketkeepers is Ian Healy. He dropped Brian Lara once and Australia lost the series. So, it happens to the best in business, and you can't brood over it forever.

Then I started preparing a checklist: Was I nervous? Were my hands stiff? Was it a physical issue or a lapse in concentration? So I started figuring out the issues and looked to address them. For example, if I dropped a catch because I was nervous, I would look to address that problem of mine. Unfortunately, I realised these things at the end of my international career.

Have wicketkeepers become more street smart these days? We see them remove their gloves when one or two runs are needed off the last ball to ensure they are ready to throw if needed.

Yes, for sure. A lot of credit for this kind of street-smartness goes to MS Dhoni. He was always unconventional. We played together in domestic cricket in East Zone, and even then, his methods were very different. The good thing is that he never tried to change them. He kept his basic technique same, and worked on the non-negotiables like soft hands, not moving much, keeping his eyes on the ball, and being very, very stable with his bodyweight. That brought results and everyone started to take note. When you see someone unorthodox and still bring results, you obviously wonder what is he doing.

What do you make of India's current wicketkeeping conundrum? MS Dhoni is not going to be there forever, and we can't seem to decide on Rishabh Pant or KL Rahul as a long-term wicketkeeper. What is your take on this?

I think KL Rahul is very good. He has all the qualities of a good keeper and that is because he has kept in age-group cricket. He has very good basics, such as soft hands, getting up with the ball and so on. He is also a very good reader of the game. He understands that if he has made a mistake, he will find a way around it. So KL Rahul looks a good choice, but you don't want to lose him as a batsman because he is a class act. So I think you ought to keep Rishabh in the mix and maybe look for one more wicketkeeper in the long run.

Any advice you'd like to give to young wicketkeepers?

I would urge all young and upcoming cricketers to have fun. It is very important to enjoy the game. Also, don't be afraid to ask questions. If someone asks you to do something, please ask why. Once you start asking questions, you will gain knowledge and you can coach yourself. By asking, you are not questioning the coach; you are merely trying to understand the basics. There are a number of non-negotiables as we discussed, but there can be your individual way to attain a particular skill. You can find your way only when you understand what is being told to you.

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Updated Date: June 18, 2020 16:06:21 IST

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