Alison Mitchell discovers the trade secrets of three men who were often the unsung heroes as they stood behind the stumps
This week, the Lord’s Taverners brought together a group of legendary wicketkeepers for a special fundraising dinner. You could say it celebrated the wicketkeepers’ union; the unique bond that exists between cricketers who play a particularly individual role within the team.
I met three at a special community school in North London, which benefits from the Taverners programme. In between games of table cricket with the students, I wanted to find out what it means to be part of their special club.
Farokh Engineer played 46 Tests for India between 1961 and 1975, famously keeping wicket to the spin quartet of Bedi, Prasanna, Chandrasekhar and Venkataraghavan. Deryck Murray kept to the fearsome West Indies fast bowling attack of the Seventies, including Andy Roberts, Michael Holding and Joel Garner, while Ian Healy was the heartbeat of the Australian Test team between 1988 and 1999, playing 119 Tests.
AM: Do you have to be a certain character to be a wicketkeeper?
IH: I think so. You need to have an ability to get your job down pat, then think about others. You can’t be all about yourself because you’re not going to be much value to the team. We all have the ability to think about others on any given day… that’s basically why we run cricket!
DM: (laughs) Ha ha. It’s a great position because you’re seeing every ball bowled and you’re at the centre of the activity. So whether it’s the bowler bowling and you collect it, or the fielder throwing it into you. You’re at the hub of what’s going on. You see what’s happening and you have the chance to say: “This bowler isn’t quite on song, this one needs to bowl more to the leg side,” so you’re at the heart of the game the whole time.
FE: As well as being a character, you’ve got to be mad! Wicketkeepers have a lot in common with goalkeepers. It’s the anticipation. The sixth sense. You can’t train someone to be a wicketkeeper, they’re born. Geoff Boycott would never have made a good keeper! Deryck is right, you are in control of the game all the time. Wicketkeepers make the best captains as well.
AM: There aren’t many keepers who are Test captains though…
FE: But a good captain will always consult his keeper. He’ll check what the ball’s doing, what’s the batsman’s strength. A keeper is always in a good position to advise the captain.
IH: Farokh, how many spinners did you keep to? Do you think in a Test match, having to cope with all those spinners, you could have been captain as well?
FE: I wasn’t officially captain, but as good as, because you’re controlling things like field placements. I played under Pataudi and Wadekar and I captained a lot of Tests within Tests.
IH: I only really had two spinners in Shane Warne and Tim May and I thought that was enough for me. When you’ve got a lot of these ‘batsmen types’ standing around in the field doing nothing, they may as well be the captain!
AM: Deryck, you kept to the great West Indies pace attack. What was that like, because you would have spent most of your career standing back a long way!
DM: Great fun, because it was the batsmen who were in trouble and I did the easy bits. People focus on these great fast bowlers but I also had Lance Gibbs and it was more interesting for me to keep to a spinner. Garry Sobers bowled a bit of everything, so I had the best of both worlds. But as Farokh was saying, you have to be a little bit mad, because it’s thankless. It’s great to have these guys around and be part of this union, because nobody else understands what a keeper goes through. We’d compare notes, rather than with our own team-mates.
AM: Did you ever find it an isolating experience, Heals, being a keeper?
IH: Yes. Cricket is full of that. But that’s what I love about it. It’s highly individual but within a team framework. The batsmen can be superstars, the bowlers can be, the wicketkeeper can be, and yet you’re all fighting for one performance.
FE: We’re all chatterboxes. That was my way of relaxing after the bowler had bowled. Chat to the slips. Especially when Boycott was batting! But when you say isolated, we make sure we’re not isolated. We chirp around and we find something to talk about all the time.
IH: You’re the hub, no question. But we still have to go into that dressing room and talk to the opposition keeper, don’t we? We go and pick their brains and get some comfort. You might not have had a great day, but you’ve got someone there who has been through it themselves.
FE: How often do you feel you’ve kept really well but you haven’t had a single catch or stumping! On other occasions you might have had four or five catches or stumpings but you don’t really feel satisfied. You could have kept better.
AM: As wicketkeepers you’re often talked about the most when you’ve had a BAD day…
DM: ONLY when we’ve had a bad day! And that’s when you need the union.
AM: What are the best physical attributes for a wicketkeeper?
FE: You need to be supremely fit because you’re in the game all the time.
DM: Agility, powers of concentration.
FE: Standing up is more of a test for a wicketkeeper because you need very good reflexes, especially in England because the ball wobbles and deviates. You had to watch the ball right into your gloves.
IH: It’s pretty hard when it starts to wobble. I reckon the biggest challenge in wicketkeeping is keeping to fast men when it’s not carrying through and it’s swinging late, particularly reverse. To keep in Pakistan to Waqar or Wasim would have been really hard. I was happy not to be one of their keepers.
AM: So how special is it now, for you all to be brought together as wicketkeepers in this way?
FE: You mentioned the wicketkeepers’ union, and it’s just that. We’re a forgotten breed. They often have captains and so on but I think we deserve recognition. We’re all nice guys – and modest as well!
The Lord’s Taverners is the UK’s leading youth cricket and disability sports charity whose objective is to give disadvantaged and disabled young people a sporting chance. Hear more about the wicketkeepers’ union on Stumped on the BBC World Service:
This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, September 30 2016
Subscribe to the digital edition of The Cricket Paper here