There are some jobs where if the person doing it does their job well, nobody notices. If an air traffic controller does their job well, then everything runs smoothly. If they do their job badly, there is chaos, and everybody notices the air traffic controller.
If you go and watch a band play a concert, you want to notice the band. If you notice the sound technician, they’ve done their job badly. The whole reason that they are hired is their ability to let the band shine.
The same is true of some roles in sports. In football, if the central defenders are doing a good enough job, and their positioning is good enough, the ball never gets passed to the player that they are marking and you don’t notice them. In road cycling, there is a role called a 'domestique'. This is the person who rides back from the pack to get water/energy gels for the team’s star riders, then catches up to them, and hands over the products. This preserves the legs of the star riders so that they’re fresh to do their more flashy roles. Nobody notices the 'domestique unless they do something like cause a crash or drop a water bottle.
In cricket, the role that often only gets noticed in the case of a mistake is that of the wicket-keeper. The keeper has a number of important roles that don’t always get noticed. It’s their job to decide how far back the slips need to stand. It’s often their job to inform the captain about a batsman’s technical issues, and also to encourage the bowlers. They are also, obviously, responsible for taking catches and stumpings, and stopping byes.
The key to quality wicket-keeping is footwork. Often high-quality footwork means that difficult catches become easy. Poor footwork means that what should be a routine catch requires a dramatic dive. These dives capture the attention of the public, but they are not necessarily the result of good keeping. The best wicket-keepers would have taken the catch comfortably, without needing the risky theatrics.
The role of the wicket-keeper has had one significant addition made in recent times. Keepers now are expected to contribute with the bat.
Wicket-keeping involves looking straight down the pitch, and moving side-to-side. Batting involves being side-on to the pitch, and moving forward or backwards. They are very different skills, and it was considered that it was too difficult to train for both of them. So keepers often batted at number 10 or 11 and were not expected to contribute much with the bat.
The collective Test average for all wicket-keepers before the first World War was 16.43, with 4.5 percent of the innings' being 50 or more. The equivalent number from the end of World War 1 until the start of the 1995/96 season was an average of 24.21 and 13 percent of innings being 50 or more. Then in the Australian tri-series of 1995/96 something dramatic happened: Romesh Kaluwitharana was asked to open the batting in an ODI match for Sri Lanka, while playing as keeper. He hit a match-defining 75-ball 77 and wicket-keeper batsmen suddenly became the most sought after type of player. Not long after that, Adam Gilchrist appeared on the scene, and the role of the keeper was forever changed.
Now the primary role of a keeper is to score runs, and there are a number of players who have played as a batsman, and also as a keeper. These batsmen-keepers are adequate with the gloves, but excellent with the bat. These players are often so athletic that they can take difficult catches despite not having ideal techniques.
Since that innings by Kaluwitharana, the combined average now reads 32.04, with 19 percent of innings by keepers reaching 50. The average is close to double the equivalent number from the early days of Test cricket.
In Saturday's match in Tauranga, there were two incidents where Tom Latham missed out on difficult chances because his footwork was not as good as an old-fashioned specialist wicket-keeper’s footwork might have been. The first incident was on the very first ball of the match. Latham dived to his right, to try to take a ball that was at the edge of his reach. He only managed to parry it away to the boundary for four. That was a missed chance to dismiss Rohit Sharma for zero. The second was in the 32nd over, where Ambati Rayudu was on two off eight balls, he gloved a ball down the leg side, but Latham couldn’t get to it, and it ran away for four.
Both of those players went on to post significant scores, and it’s an example of the value that a specialist wicket-keeper might have added. In the past four years, when a team takes a wicket in the first 10 overs they tend to win 50 percent more often than if they don’t take any. Taking two wickets in the first 10 overs means that teams win 39 percent more often than if they take only one. Taking that extra catch can be the difference between winning and losing.
The opposite was shown by Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s stunning stumping of Ross Taylor. New Zealand’s best ODI batsman was dismissed for 10, and that was the point where the match that had looked evenly balanced suddenly became one-sided. The difference made by the quality of the keeping was almost as significant as the difference in the batting and bowling.
Possibly Latham’s misses were due to it still being relatively early in the lead-up to the World Cup, but they should still be concerning to New Zealand management. New Zealand’s ODI successes have traditionally been based on high-quality fielding, good bowling plans and quick runs from the bowlers. The fielding effort starts with the wicket-keeper. If he isn’t taking the chances that the bowlers are creating, then New Zealand will struggle to deliver on their obvious potential.
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