@Ben_Wisden 3 minute read
Wisden.com managing editor Ben Gardner explains why picking a wicketkeeper was the hardest decision the panel had to make when picking Wisden’s men’s ODI team of the 1990s.
“It’s a good problem to have.”
The cliché has been trotted out by countless coaches and multiple managers as a way of avoiding telling the press which way they’re leaning on a selection conundrum. Pay a compliment to both players, pontificate a bit, and leave it at that. Normally it’s a frustration; now us journalists can empathise.
The Covid-19 pandemic, during which lockdowns and travel bans have contributed to a drastic streamlining of the cricket calendar, has forced us to become de facto selectors, churning out combined XIs in a bid to fill the gaping void. Even though they’re fun, anyone who’s given one of our team selectors a go will know it’s a devilishly tough task, with the problem of plenty presenting itself again and again.
Few things have given me more pain than snubbing Arjuna Ranatunga, who, with bat and as a captain, played a key part in perhaps cricket’s most incredible story: Sri Lanka’s 1996 World Cup win. But to pick him would mean leaving out the Prince himself, Brian Charles Lara, and that would have hurt more, and so its Wasim Akram who leads the side.
Still, this sort of challenge comes with the territory. Far less common is the mire we found ourselves in when selecting the wicketkeeper, as we scrambled around in vain looking for a viable candidate. They say the best wicketkeepers go unnoticed in their exploits, but it still seems remarkable that a whole decade should pass without one putting together a compelling body of work.
The first player discussed was Alec Stewart. A capable keeper, and a vastly underrated Test batsman. But though he had his moments as an ODI batsman – for example, scoring 237 runs at a smidge under 60 in England’s forgotten Champions Trophy triumph – he felt underwhelming, especially since our surfeit of top-order options meant we needed a candidate to bat at No.7, something the Gaffer only did three times in the Nineties. A strike-rate of 70.61 suggested he wouldn’t be best suited to the role of the finisher either.
Andy Flower was discarded for similar reasons. Though he made the most runs of any keeper, had the best average, and a slightly better strike-rate than Stewart, it was hard to find a performance of note to justify his inclusion.
Romesh Kaluwitharana meanwhile was initially appealing from a philosophical point of view. Here was a keeper who played a part in a World Cup win, and revolutionised opening the batting while doing so. The only issue was, his high score that competition, of 33, came against Kenya. Apart from that, and an admittedly electric 16-ball 26 against India, he didn’t make it to double figures. For whatever impact he had on the game, he rarely did that much on the field itself.
The legendary Australia keeper Adam Gilchrist was the man who came closest to ousting our eventual choice from the XI. Despite debuting in 1996, he scored more than twice as many hundreds as the next most by a keeper that decade, and was a part of a World Cup-winning campaign in 1999. But, apart from a fifty in the final, with the result put almost beyond doubt already by Shane Warne’s brilliance, there was little he did of note that competition. His best work would come from 2000 onwards, and he rightly found a place in both Wisden’s Test and ODI teams of that decade. His time would come, but not yet.
There was discussion of Moin Khan and Adam Parore, the former part of the 1992 World Cup win, though largely a bystander, and the later a cult hero but with a slow-even-for-the-era strike-rate of 69.06.
It was Wisden India editor Manoj Narayn who suggested we go back to first principles. This was a decade before the wicketkeeping revolution – though it was heralded by Gilchrist’s arrival – when glovemen were glovemen first and batsmen second, and so we endeavoured to pick the best pure stumper, reasoning that our Nos.1-6 should be racking up big totals by themselves most days anyway.
There will always be debate over how to evaluate the best pure wicketkeeper, an aesthetic judgement as much as a quantitative one. But in the end we settled on Ian Healy, undoubtedly a capable batsman, but a keeper who effected more dismissals overall than anyone in the ’90s, and more dismissals per match than anyone except Gilchrist (min. 100 dismissals). Arguably, without him behind the stumps, Shane Warne wouldn’t have been nearly as lethal. His healthy strike-rate is a bonus.
That is unlikely to satisfy everyone. If stumpings were given more weight, Moin would have an even stronger shout. But the beauty of these exercises is in the debate they spark. The selectors’ choice is final, but not infallible. We look forward to us telling you how and why we’re wrong.