One of my favourite cricket writers is Jon Hotten, perhaps better known as The Old Batsman. I was fortunate enough to meet Jon at The Cheltenham Literature Festival a few weeks back, where he chaired the talk I was asked to give on cricket as the perfect sport for a spot of philosophy. Needless to say, we sized up the audience (such as it was) and decided that a better avenue was telling a few yarns, all the while shoehorning in the odd vaguely philosophical reminder here and there.
Both John and I contributed to the October edition of The Cricket Monthly, ESPNcricinfo's new digital magazine. My piece was a (painstakingly edited) diary of Peter Siddle's season with Nottinghamshire, while Jon pondered the ever-changing role of the wicketkeeper.
I have chosen two extracts from the latter that illustrate Jon's masterly writing, its economy, elegance and snap. The first spins a wry yarn about an old wicketkeeper with whom he shared a dressing room, the second shows off his characteristic acuity at spotting emerging trends in the game, charting its evolutionary direction.
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The concept of the club kitbag has almost died out now, in an age where gear is marketed, coveted and fetishised, but back then most sides had a couple of guys who weren't bothered about owning equipment of their own and who were happy to delve around in the club bag for a pair of mismatched pads, some sweat-stained gloves, maybe a mildewed thigh pad they could use and chuck back at the end of the day.
Within this particular club bag it lay, cold and ancient. A stitched-in manufacturer's label described it as an "abdominal guard" but that hardly did it justice. It looked like something Henry V wore to Agincourt, a great tin codpiece attached to a wide, padded V-shaped belt that had to be stepped into like a jockstrap and then secured around the waist with a couple of long ties.
It was universally known as "Cyril's Box" after the only man who would (or could) wear it, the 1st team wicketkeeper, Cyril. He was a remarkable man, mid-fifties, squat, powerful, with giant, hooked hands permanently ingrained with grease. I never discovered what it was that Cyril did for a living, but it was some kind of hard physical labour that had produced both great strength and admirable stoicism. He rarely said anything. Instead he turned up in the dressing room every Saturday, stripped off his street clothes, retrieved the box from wherever he had thrown it the week before, strapped himself in, pulled the rest of his gear over it and walked out onto the pitch.
Like the young Rod Marsh, Cyril had iron gloves. The ball often used to fly off them at tremendous speed, accompanied on crucial occasions by a muttered oath. He'd sometimes stand up to the opening bowlers, usually without explanation, and it was then that the abdominal guard earned its corn. The ball would smack Cyril in the vital area and then ricochet away with a metallic clang. On one occasion a batsman was caught at second slip direct from Cyril's box and the game took a while to restart: several people were actually crying with laughter; Cyril wasn't one of them.
After a match Cyril would silently remove his box, sometimes pushing out a dent with a thick thumb. He'd get changed back into his street clothes and then wander up to the pub, his love for the game expressed perfectly and eloquently in the slow satisfaction of his walk.
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It would be easy to see this [keepers picked on batting ability] as the future of wicketkeeping forever, and yet cricket is never still. I would suggest that it's in T20s, where the keeper's role looks the most disposable, that the change may come.
The thought began to form as Hampshire, my county, had a glorious little run with the white ball, one that brought them two domestic one-day cups and two T20 titles. These rewards seemed at odds with the ability of the team, who were financially outgunned by far richer counties and lacked a box-office overseas performer. What they had, though, was a very particular method, especially at their home, the Rose Bowl, where wickets were low and skiddy. They used lots of medium pace and flat spin and choked the life out of big-hitting teams. As the tactic developed, their remarkable young wicketkeeper, Michael Bates, became central, often standing up to the stumps for most of the innings.
What Hampshire had hit on was simply an equation of resources. T20 is a game for specialisation, because unlike Tests and ODIs, those resources are rarely exhausted in the time allocated.
At the start of each game, the wicketkeeper is the only specialist position guaranteed to be able to affect a minimum 50% of the match while using his primary skill (the 20 overs for which they keep). A bowler has 10% (four of 40 overs), the two opening batsmen an unlikely maximum of 50%, the other batsmen a sliding downward scale from there.
The wicketkeeping position can therefore be reimagined as an attacking option. It's an opportunity to reduce the effectiveness of the batsman by keeping him in his crease against seam bowling, thus reducing his scoring options. While it's hard to quantify exactly how many runs might be saved by a gloveman capable of standing up to the seamers, it is a move that would challenge many of the techniques of T20 batting. It might not be fanciful to guess that the score might be limited by 20 to 30 runs per innings, at least until batsmen adjust in turn.
It was easy to go into some kind of reverie when watching Bates; he brought back memories of Taylor standing up to Botham, of the impish skills of Knott, the silken hands of Russell.
These men were a different shape to the gym-produced, identikit bodies that burst forth from the tight-shirted present. The demands of the job mitigate against the physique needed for power-hitting, and a specialist wicketkeeper might have to be regarded a little like a bowler, with his main contribution coming in the field. But without running the stats, it would be interesting to know how often the seventh batsman has done the job when six others couldn't.
At the time of Hampshire's successes there was much talk of Sarah Taylor, England Women's sublimely talented wicketkeeper, playing a match for Sussex 2nds. While mixed sides may be counterproductive to both the men's and women's games in the long run, a talent like Taylor's would fit well into a T20 game, where her batting would be less relevant.
Hampshire dropped Bates when they signed Adam Wheater, who is a better batsman. Many, including me, were sad to see it happen, because watching Bates was a reminder of what an electrifying skill wicketkeeping can be.