20. Keeping up with the times

Over the years, wicketkeepers have been moving up the ODI order and becoming better batsmen

The 1990s was a time when much changed in ODI cricket. Teams started scoring fast in the first 15 overs of the innings, pushing up overall scores. Spinners started opening the bowling. There was a sharp rise in the number of “bits and pieces players”. And then the role of the wicketkeeper fundamentally changed.

Until the early 1990s, teams didn’t care if their wicketkeeper could bat. I remember that the Tamil Nadu Ranji Trophy team had a wicketkeeper (M Sanjay) who would bat at 11 in every game. While there were few international keepers who batted so low, they typically batted at numbers 8 or 9, their batting being at best a bonus. And then in the 1990s, they started moving up the order.

Like other 90s cricketing phenomena, this didn’t happen at the same time across all teams. The unlikely pioneers in this case were England, who found in Alec Stewart a quality batsman who could keep wicket (though it can be argued that it was Zimbabwe, who had accomplished batsmen such as David Houghton and Andy Flower keeping wicket, who set the trend).

While Stewart didn’t always open the batting in games when he kept, he seldom batted below number 6, allowing England the luxury of an allrounder or a bits-and-pieces player (such as Derek Pringle or Dermot Reeve or Craig White or Andrew Flintoff) at number 7. Stewart’s presence in the top order is also perhaps what allowed England to field a side full of bits and pieces players (Pringle, Reeve and end-of-career Ian Botham) in the 1992 World Cup.

Then, just before the 1996 World Cup, Sri Lanka moved their wicketkeeper Romesh Kaluwitharana (who had scored a century on Test debut) to the top of the order. In partnership with Sanath Jayasuriya, Kaluwitharana changed the way Sri Lanka, and maybe just about everyone, played ODI cricket.

And then in 1998, when Adam Gilchrist replaced Ian Healy in the Australian lineup, the batting prowess of a wicketkeeper went to a whole new level. Opening the batting (initially with Mark Waugh and then with Matthew Hayden), Gilchrist was pivotal in taking Australia to three consecutive World Cup victories. His successor Brad Haddin also regularly opened the innings for Australia. In that sense it is a bit of an oddity that Australia is among the few teams that has its wicketkeeper batting regularly at Number 7 in the ongoing World Cup.

As England, Sri Lanka and Australia were making big moves in the way they used their wicketkeepers, other teams were making their own little upgrades, bringing in keepers who were better batsmen and who could bat higher up the order. Kiran More, who batted at 8 or 9, made way for Nayan Mongia who batted at 7. Ian Smith was succeeded by Adam Parore. Dave Richardson by Mark Boucher.

The move up the order was also accompanied by an improvement of the keepers’ batting. Until the early 90s, wicketkeepers on the whole averaged around 20. In the late 90s, that number went up to 20, and has since increased continuously. In 2019, wicketkeepers have been averaging 40, firmly establishing themselves, as a class, a “wicketkeeper batsmen”.

At the ongoing World Cup, most wicketkeepers have batted at number 5, with Australia’s Alex Carey and Afghanistan’s Ikram Alikhil being the only keepers who have regularly batted at 7 or below. In fact, Alikhil’s inclusion (at the expense of a misfiring Mohammad Shahzad) raised eyebrows because of its destabilising effect on the balance of the Afghan team.

The move of the keepers into the top order resulted in the freeing up of a slot in the lower order. Some teams, such as England and Australia, responded by including a bits-and-pieces player at number seven. In the next edition, we will look at how teams have managed the numbers 6 to 8 positions over the years.