One of the most commonly done activity by cricket fans among the world is to make an all-time XI based on eras, countries and various similar parameters. One picks batmen – right and left handed, bowlers –spinners and fast bowlers, but often the balance of the side hinges upon two other categories which have the least number of representatives.
I am talking about all-rounders and wicket-keepers. Most often you see one each of them or at most two but the balance of the side depends upon these two categories more than anyone else.
What are the attributes one must look at while choosing a wicket-keeper?
Of course he must be damn good in taking catches and effecting stumpings, but is that all?
More often than not the one who gets the nod ahead of the rest is the wicket-keeper who has better batting skills.
This article is about the best wicket-keeper – batsmen to ever play the game.
In order to find who are the best, we go beyond the traditional approach of looking just into numbers.
In this piece the wicket-keepers are compared with their peers of their generation which gives an indication of how much the wicket-keepers took their batting seriously. Then they are compared with their team mates which tells us how important was his contribution with the bat important to the team. Finally their batting prowess is checked with that of the standards of batting of times they played in.
Considering longevity an important factor, I have restricted the analysis to keepers who have played a minimum of 30 Tests.
There are 48 wicket-keepers falling in the criteria starting from Australia’s first ever wicket-keeper Jack Blackham to Bangladesh’s Mushfiqur Rahim.
Wicket-keepers’ batting overs the decades
Wicket-keepers usually occupy the #7 position in most batting line ups and act as the link between the top order and the tail. The graph above has a zigzag pattern till the 1980s. But since it has been increasing slowly and steadily. One reason for this being the importance they give their own batting as well as the improvement in batting of the bowlers who make up the tail.
Wicket-keepers with top batting averages (Min 30 Tests)
|A Flower (Zim)||1992-2002||100||4404||53.70|
|AC Gilchrist (Aus)||1999-2008||137||5570||47.60|
|LEG Ames (Eng)||1929-1939||67||2387||43.40|
|KC Sangakkara (SL)||2000-2008||79||3093||41.24|
|MJ Prior (Eng)||2007-2014||123||4099||40.18|
The names on the list would be hardly surprising for anyone.
Barring Les Ames, all others had their career in the last 23 years and has contributed heavily to the upward growth of the tail of the above graph. The overall batting average in a decade for the wicket-keepers touched 30 for the first time in the 2000s – the era when one man, Adam Gilchrist, was redefining the role of wicket-keepers and setting new bench marks.
Andy Flower also had a found a purple patch at the turn of the century in his already glittery career. Kumar Sangakkara came into the scene in the second half of the year 2000. He was followed by McCullum, Dhoni and Prior. Thus started a new breed called wicket-keeper – batsman.
Wicket-keepers with batting average better than that of their times
|Player||Span||Inngs||Runs||Avg||Avg – Worldwide||Difference|
|A Flower (Zim)||1992-2002||100||4404||53.70||33.79||19.91|
|AC Gilchrist (Aus)||1999-2008||137||5570||47.60||36.28||11.32|
|LEG Ames (Eng)||1929-1939||67||2387||43.40||35.59||7.81|
|KC Sangakkara (SL)||2000-2008||79||3093||41.24||36.63||4.61|
|MJ Prior (Eng)||2007-2014||123||4099||40.18||37.50||2.68|
|AJ Stewart (Eng)||1991-2003||145||4540||34.92||34.26||0.66|
|MS Dhoni (India)||2005-2014||144||4876||38.09||37.78||0.31|
Among the 48 wicket-keepers who played 30 or more Tests, just seven of them had better average compared to the overall average of their times for the top 8 batsmen. In the 10 year period on Andy Flower’s career when the rest of the world averaged 33.79 while he was scoring at 53.70. The fact that the top 8 of his team averaged a mere 26.47 in the same period makes it even more phenomenal. At the start of the series against India in November 2000, Flower averaged 44. In the 18 Tests since then to the end of his career he averaged 71. He was the second best batsmen in the world during that period after Mohammed Yousuf in terms of average for anyone who batted in at least 25 innings. The next Zimbabwean in that list is Alistair Campbell at 42nd position, averaging 33.66.
On the contrary, Adam Gilchrist had a great start to his career and a dip in form towards the end of his career. Gilchrist averaged 55.65 at the start of Ashes series in 2005 where he was exposed by Freddie Flintoff. During the first six years of his career till the Ashes, only nine batsmen in the world averaged more than him and none of the nine above him scored at a better pace than his 83 runs per 100 balls. His averaged dropped three points down to 52.64 by the end of that Ashes series. He averaged 30.21 in the last 28 Tests of his career with just two hundreds, including the then second fasTest century off 57 balls vs England at Perth.
Wicket-keepers with batting average better than that of their team mates
|Player||Span||Inngs||Runs||Avg||Avg – Rest of team||Diff 2|
|A Flower (Zim)||1992-2002||100||4404||53.70||26.47||27.23|
|LEG Ames (Eng)||1929-1939||67||2387||43.40||39.28||4.12|
|KC Sangakkara (SL)||2000-2008||79||3093||41.24||37.32||3.92|
|Mushfiqur Rahim (Ban)||2007-2015||81||2531||33.74||30.14||3.60|
|AJ Stewart (Eng)||1991-2003||145||4540||34.92||32.35||2.57|
|Imtiaz Ahmed (Pak)||1952-1962||67||2010||30.45||28.93||1.52|
|BB McCullum (NZ)||2004-2013||85||2782||34.77||33.46||1.31|
|MJ Prior (Eng)||2007-2014||123||4099||40.18||38.88||1.31|
|FM Engineer (India)||1961-1975||87||2611||31.08||30.33||0.75|
|AC Gilchrist (Aus)||1999-2008||137||5570||47.60||47.50||0.10|
The above table lists the wicket-keeper batsman having average better than the top eight of their own team during their playing days. Again Andy Flower tops the list. Testimony to the fact that how good a player he was and how mediocre was the team he played in.
He averaged more than double when he donned the wicket-keeper’s gloves than his team mates scored combined. Flower averaged 51.40 during his 10 year old career with Zimbabwe. The next best average for anyone in the same period for Zimbabwe with 25 or more innings was his brother Grant Flower with 30.26.
The one who misses the above table from the previous one is MS Dhoni. He averaged 0.31 less than the top 8 of his team because of the greats he rubbed shoulder in his camp like Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Sehwag, Gambhir and the likes of Pujara, Kohli and Rahane later on. Also his number eight batsmen – Anil Kumble, Irfan Pathan, Harbhajan Singh and Ravi Ashwin – have six centuries between them – the most by any team during Dhoni’s career.
Wicket-keepers with batting average better than that of other keepers
|Player||Span||Inngs||Runs||Avg||Avg – All other WKs||Diff 3|
|A Flower (Zim)||1992-2002||100||4404||53.70||27.76||25.94|
|LEG Ames (Eng)||1929-1939||67||2387||43.40||20.33||23.07|
|AC Gilchrist (Aus)||1999-2008||137||5570||47.60||29.82||17.78|
|JM Parks (Eng)||1960-1968||64||1876||32.34||21.85||10.49|
|Imtiaz Ahmed (Pak)||1952-1962||67||2010||30.45||20.15||10.30|
|KC Sangakkara (SL)||2000-2008||79||3093||41.24||31.20||10.04|
|APE Knott (Eng)||1967-1981||149||4389||32.75||23.26||9.49|
|JHB Waite (SA)||1951-1965||84||2336||30.33||21.04||9.29|
|PJL Dujon (WI)||1982-1991||111||3146||31.46||22.79||8.67|
|MJ Prior (Eng)||2007-2014||123||4099||40.18||32.74||7.44|
|AJ Stewart (Eng)||1991-2003||145||4540||34.92||28.59||6.33|
|FM Engineer (India)||1961-1975||87||2611||31.08||25.05||6.03|
|MS Dhoni (India)||2005-2014||144||4876||38.09||32.41||5.68|
|SMH Kirmani (India)||1976-1986||124||2759||27.04||22.96||4.08|
|BB McCullum (NZ)||2004-2013||85||2782||34.77||31.48||3.29|
Of the 48 keepers in our sample set, 22 average better than the other keepers of their time and another seven average one run an innings less than their peers. Perhaps a proof that the keepers who had better batting skills were preferred more often than not. The one who had the worst difference in this regard is Bangladesh’s Khaled Mashud, who averaged 19.04 while other keepers of his time averaged 33.34.
There are three from our sample set who played a significant number of Test matches as non-wicket-keepers – Alec Stewart, Kumar Sangakkara and Brendon McCullum.
|As wicket-keeper||As non-wicket-keeper||Overall|
Sangakkara and McCullum have had better careers once they hung up their gloves. Stewart had more of a stop start career as a wicket-keeper. Every time England needed an additional bowler or batsman, Jack Russell got dropped and Stewart had to wear the gloves. He scored his career best 173 against New Zealand at Auckland in one such match.
Sanga wore gloves in 47 Tests since his debut in July 2000 till the Trent bridge Test against England in June 2006. During the same period Romesh Kaluwitharana kept wickets in 15 Tests and Prasanna Jayawrdene in 5. Since then, Prasanna was Sri Lanka’s premier wicket-keeper in 78 more Tests. Sanga took the gloves once again for one Test in Kingston in 2008 which Prasanna missed due to an injury. He averages 69.35 in 82 Tests as a non-wicket-keeper – 29 more than what he averaged as a keeper in 48 Tests. He scored 31 hundreds in these 82 Tests compared to 7 in the other 48.
Brendon McCullum also is the same boat as the other two – his batting turned out better once he parted ways with wicket keeping. He quit keeping in March 2010 before donning it for once more against England in 2013. In his second Test after this he scored his first double century, 225 against India in Hyderabad. Since he scored two more double hundreds and also the first ever triple century by a Kiwi, 302 in the second innings of the Wellington Test in February 2014.
There are also a few others who performed exceptionally well with the bat while donning the keeper’s gloves marginally misses the cut of 30 Tests.
AB de Villiers who took gloves immediately after the unfortunate retirement of Mark Boucher, scored at 58.26 per innings in 23 Tests with seven centuries. It stands well ahead of his career average of 52.09. Then you have BJ Watling of New Zealand who averages 46.45 in the 23 Tests he kept wicket. He has handed over the gloves to Luke Ronchi recently which clearly points to his improvement as a Test batsman. He along with McCullum has been the rock of their lower middle order and one of the most important ingredient to their recent success. You also have Pakistan’s new sensation Sarfraz Ahmed who averages 47.65 in his 15 Tests as wicket-keeper. Clyde Walcott of West Indies and Dennis Lindsay of South Africa are the other notable names. Both average 40 in 15 Tests each as wicket-keeper.
After going through all the analysis and if I have to pick my greatest wicket-keeper batsman to ever play the game from some of the greats, it has to be Andy Flower.
He ended up in the winning side only in 7 of his 63 Tests where he averaged 84.50. Gilchrist, Sanga, Stewart and others have also been great but none has been more vital to his own team than Flower. He was good enough to secure his place as a pure batsman only but his double role often helped his team to attain that all important balance.
Only if he had been playing for a better side…
All records updated till 31 May 2015