At the start of IPL 2021 there was one report, which pointed out that as many four out of the eight sides taking part in the tournament were led by wicketkeepers. Besides veteran Mahendra Singh Dhoni continuing to lead Chennai Super Kings (CSK) and part-time stumper K L Rahul staying on as captain of Punjab Kings (PBKS), Sanju Samson and Rishabh Pant were elevated to captaincy by Rajasthan Royals (RR) and Delhi Capitals (DC) respectively prior to the start of the tournament. This was a unique development as, till not too long ago, it was rare to see wicketkeepers leading their sides even in first-class cricket.
Captaining a side is one of the most challenging tasks in cricket. A captain is responsible for all the happenings on the field when his side is bowling. He has to decide on who all should bowl, when they should turn their arms over, the ends from where they should operate and the length of their respective spells. He is required to set the field for each bowler and decide the position of individual fielders. He is the decision maker regarding effecting bowling changes as well as making fine adjustments in the field. Further, in limited overs cricket, he has to factor in the provisions relating to restriction on placement of fielders and overs allotted to each bowler, besides ensuring that overs are bowled within the stipulated time. When the side is batting, the captain decides the batting order and he alone can change it. And, finally, he is the authority to decide on declaring an innings closed or forfeiting the same. Suffice to state that a captain is required to be completely clued in to the game without a break, both while his side is batting as well as when they are fielding.
Conventional wisdom tells us that only batsmen make good captains. This is for the reason that when the side is fielding, a batsman can focus entirely on the task of leading the side and is in a position to take an objective view of the proceedings. The success of batsmen from Don Bradman and Len Hutton down to Kane Williamson and Virat Kohli as captains stand as proof for this theory. A bowler, on the other hand, might tend to be focused on his own performances with the ball, which could become a distraction and stand in the way of forming a dispassionate view of the proceedings. Further, there will always be the bigger question of a bowler captain tending to either over-bowl himself or tending to place too little faith his own abilities by sending down fewer deliveries than required. The relative lack of success of Bishan Singh Bedi and S Venkataraghavan as skippers, despite their unchallenged technical acumen and leadership skills, stand as classic examples in this regard. Those bowler-captains who were successful have invariably been all-rounders, such as Imran Khan and Richie Benaud.
Wicketkeepers have traditionally been left out of the captaincy stakes as it was considered that they need to focus fully on their work behind the stumps, to the exclusion of everything else. It is not in dispute that wicketkeeping is a full-time job when a side is fielding and the person donning the big gloves behind the stumps is the most important person for the side. A wicketkeeper is required to concentrate fully on the ball right form the time bowler starts his run up till it ceases being in play. Even after the ball is played by the batsman, he has to look out for opportunities for effecting a run out, besides collecting throw-ins from the deep. Further, the sheer physical demand of having to crouch before every ball is delivered and standing up by the time it passes the bat and rushing to the wicket, whenever required, is bound to take a toll on even the fittest of humans. In addition to all this, he is also, invariably, the prime motivator of the side, shouting out words of encouragement to the bowler and other fielders, besides occasionally riling the batsman with some sledging. Given these multifarious, regular tasks as a wicketkeeper, it was felt that burdening the person even further by giving him the responsibility of captaincy would only prove to be counterproductive and might even contribute towards bringing down his performance levels behind the stumps.
However, it was always accepted that a wicketkeeper is best placed to oversee the happenings on the field and offer words of advice to the captain. From his position behind the stumps, he gets the same 360 degree view of the field as the batsman at the crease. He is also ideally stationed to judge the pace and movement that a fast bowler is able to generate, while for the spinner he can clearly assess the amount of turn and bounce that the ball is getting off the wicket. Further, from his vantage location, he can give accurate tips to the captain regarding positioning of fielders, both close to the bat and away from it. All successful captains in cricketing history have relied upon the counsel of wicketkeepers while arriving at critical decisions on the field.
It can be said with authority that it was Dhoni who changed the conventional thinking about wicketkeepers not suited for leading the side. There have been wicketkeeper-captains in international cricket before him, with Gerry Alexander, who led the West Indies in 18 Tests between 1958 and 1960, and Lee Germon, who led New Zealand in all 12 Tests he played, being the more notable amongst such glovemen. Alexander gained fame as the last “white skinned player” to have captained the Caribbean side and his elevation to leadership was more an attempt to delay the inevitable development of appointing a “darker skinned” cricketer to that post, than a tribute to his leadership abilities. Germon was a surprise choice to lead the Kiwi side and he ended up with a mediocre record, both as captain and wicketkeeper-batsman.
Most of the others who led the side prior to the advent of Dhoni were stand-in skippers, who led the side during a gap when a regular captain was not available or due to some specific reasons, not related to their leadership skills. Adam Gilchrist of Australia, Ridley Jacobs of the West Indies and Moin Khan and Wasim Bari of Pakistan fall under this category. Then there was Alec Stewart of England, who was selected to play for his country as a batsman but used to wear the big gloves as his career progressed. Stewart also used to open the innings which made his job even more difficult. Stewart led England in 15 Tests, and in 12 out of them he was also the wicketkeeper.
Dhoni, on the other hand, fired the imagination of the entire cricketing world, in his very first important outing as skipper by winning the inaugural ICC T20 World Cup in 2007. His bold bowling changes, his intuitions and keen instinct for the game, ability to think out of the box and absolute calm even under the most stressful situations marked him out as ideal captaincy material. But it was his ability to combine the work of wicketkeeper with that of a skipper that made him truly remarkable. He made it look so stupidly simple, combining both the jobs with flair and panache, as if this was the most normal thing in the world. For the record, Dhoni led India in 60 Tests, besides being the captain who brought home the winners’ trophy from ICC T20 World Cup 2007, ICC World Cup 2011 and Champions Trophy in 2013.
It was the success of Dhoni that prompted a rethinking among the selectors round the world about appointing stumpers as captains. Soon one started seeing more wicketkeepers leading the side in international cricket with Mushfiqur Rahim of Bangladesh, Sarfaraz Ahmed of Pakistan and Tim Paine of Australia donning the hat of captain with aplomb. The same trend was reflected in -class matches too and this has now extended to IPL as well.
Will the present surge in wicketkeepers leading the side sustain? It is difficult to say for certain but there is every likelihood that the present surge in the number of stumpers donning the role of captains will come down in the not too distant future. Already the number is down to just one in Test cricket and it remains to be seen how much longer Paine continues to lead Australia. Further, the essentials of the game has not changed and wicketkeeping still remains the most demanding job, physically and mentally, when a side is fielding. It is only those extraordinarily gifted human beings, like Dhoni, who can surmount the various challenges of this job and successfully take on the burdens and stress that come with captaincy.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)