Ben Jones analyses the Indian gloveman’s work behind the stumps, after a day to forget.
Today was nothing new. Today should not have been a surprise.
Rishabh Pant, in dropping Will Pucovski twice – once from a sharp reflex nick and once from a looping chance over his head – gave Australia a lifeline on Day 1 at the SCG. A flat pitch may have offered the hosts their dream opportunity to get back into nick, but to an extent, they fluffed their lines. A half-fit David Warner played three reckless false shots in a brief stay, and debutant Pucovski was effectively dismissed three times despite looking otherwise assured. Had Pant held his catches, the possibility of five wickets on a shortened opening day was not out of the question.
Yet the chances were spilled, as they have been before, as they will be again. Nothing here should have been a surprise. Because Rishabh Pant’s keeping has not been good in Test cricket. Not at all.
According to our fielding metrics, Pant’s keeping is the second worst in the world since his debut. He drops more catches than everyone other than Mushfiqur Rahim and Shane Dowrich, and costs his side more runs than almost anyone.
When you compare Pant to every other established modern keeper, his record against spin stands out. In the last decade, Matt Prior – a similarly maligned “batsman-keeper” – is the only gloveman with a worse catching record against spin than Pant. With due respect to the odd subjective call on chances/half-chances, Pant drops about as many as he catches when it comes to keeping against spin. Given his nationality, and – for all the advances in Indian pace bowling – the typical strength of his attack, this is not a throwaway flaw.
He is not a good wicketkeeper. However, he is a very good wicketkeeper batsman. No wicket-keeper has made more centuries than Pant since his debut. The only man with more runs at a higher average is Quinton de Kock. It takes all of a second for the caveats to come out as to why his runs don’t count – they came in draws, it was a flat pitch, he didn’t convert a 90 into a 100 – but the fact is, they do count. Pant has the the highest batting average (77.50) against high pace of any Indian since records were first kept. His runs are evidence of skill, skill demonstrated in a variety of conditions; as evident of skill as Saha’s immaculate keeping.
To back one of these skills over another is simply a tactical choice. If you have an elite gloveman who is also a competent batsman, then there is an argument to include them ahead of a man with inverted skills. Flip it around, and you have a similarly understandable tactic. Provided you have both options at your disposal, the reasons for going with either are the same as any other tactical choice, i.e. dependent on team structure, conditions, opposition, and form. Tactical dogmatists on either side of the fence may disagree, but there is no Right Answer here. You’ll generally find more evangelists preaching the importance of “specialist keepers”, but there are similar voices offering the alternative view.
Perhaps, right now, the bluntness of accepted mainstream measures clouds the debate. Batting analysis is (obviously) far more rigorous and understood, so keeping strength could go under the radar, underappreciated. Our metrics make it clear that Saha is clearly the superior gloveman, but that takes a leap even beyond catching success, where Pant and Saha have similar records. In some ways, preserving the traditional artform of wicketkeeping requires a more modern approach.
In Australia, you can make a reasonable argument that Wriddaman Saha is not a competent top seven batsman. He has played four Tests in Australia, and scored a total of 124 runs, averaging 15.50. A small sample, without question, but a career average of 24.89 against pace bowling suggests we are within a framework. By selecting Pant – who has surpassed that 124 in a single Australian innings – India strengthen their batting significantly. It’s no coincidence that Ravindra Jadeja’s (arguably match-winning) arrival into the side for the last Test was accompanied by Pant’s arrival. It’s a basic premise, but the batting strength Pant brings allows other players to function better. India do not have to be calling a referendum on keeper-batsmen v batsmen-keeper with every selection call they make. They can simply be suggesting that against this side (a bowling heavy side in Australia) and this Indian XI (a team with no discernible tail) needs lower order runs more than it needs to take every keeping catch.
And so, if Pant fails with the bat as well, then it’s far worse. When you are picked for your keeping, and you make mistakes – like Saha did at Adelaide – then you deserve criticism, particularly if you fall hugely below the expected competency for your secondary skill. Pant has already done the latter; the pressure now comes on his primary skill. Perform in this Test with the bat and he both vindicates his selection as a keeper, and strengthens the argument he could play as a batsman and nothing more. Reach excellency with the primacy skill and the secondary skill is irrelevant; a luxury we afford batsmen-keepers, but not keeper-batsmen.
Ultimately, like any selection battle between two players with differing skills, both can feel aggrieved and gently empathetic to the other. The binary nature of public discourse on the topic throws everyone into one of two camps, and then necessarily pits one player against the other. In the case of Saha and Pant, this feels particularly reductive; both are good players, who execute their respective strengths with aplomb. But the vindictive tone to criticism of Pant’s secondary skill on Day 1 in Sydney, compared to the tone of criticism of Saha’s batting in Adelaide, speaks to an imbalance in the conversations, and in the general analysis of wicketkeeping. Hopefully, this is something we can leave behind.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.