On Day 3 of the second Test between India and South Africa at Centurion, there was a spell of play which was particularly frustrating for the visitors. Play had resumed after a short rain break. Skipper Virat Kohli was wondering why the teams were out on the field as he felt the conditions were still damp.

Jasprit Bumrah, though, produced a brute of a delivery to get an outside edge from Dean Elgar, who was batting on 29 at the time. The ball flew to keeper Parthiv Patel’s left as he gestured towards Cheteshwar Pujara, who was standing at some distance away from him at wide first slip. The ball sailed to the boundary. It was the keeper’s catch and Kohli wasn’t too happy.

It again exposed India’s catching behind the stumps, which has been nothing short of woeful but has been overshadowed by the team’s batting troubles.

Coming into the XI in place of an injured Wriddhiman Saha, Parthiv hasn’t really made a seamless transition. The Gujarat lad, who first made an appearance for India under Sourav Ganguly, dropped a couple of catches in the Centurion Test and wasn’t a hit with the bat either.

Ahead of the third Test, the BCCI announced that Saha will take no further part in the series and has been replaced by Dinesh Karthik, who will fly in for the final game to be played in Johannesburg. Karthik’s presence will provide the team with an added option for the spot of keeper. Considering, Parthiv’s below par performance, it won’t be surprising if Karthik makes it to the playing XI straightaway.

Parthiv and Karthik are keepers, who came into the international fold even before MS Dhoni came into the picture. It’s been two years since the former skipper retired from Test cricket. However, despite the long spell in between, two keepers who he replaced are still vying for the spot left vacant by him, begging the question if there exists a void in India’s wicket-keeping probables list.

Parthiv Patel (left) did not have a great outing against South Africa in Centurion (Image: Sportzpics)
Parthiv Patel (left) did not have a great outing against South Africa in Centurion (Image: Sportzpics)

Perennial back-ups

Karthik and Parthiv have been on the periphery of the Indian team for more than a decade now. With Dhoni more or less killing all competition in the late 2000s, there was no real scope for a keeper. Saha was always a backup for Dhoni in Tests, and finally got in after Dhoni called time on his Test career.

Saha fought tooth and nail with Parthiv to bag a position in the Test squad as both players produced enviable performances in the 2016-’17 domestic season. The former edged ahead and has since cemented his position in the team.

Karthik, meanwhile, has returned to the fold in the limited-overs setup albeit in the capacity of a batsman. While the likelihood of him replacing Dhoni behind the stumps are slim, his presence in the team always provides a back-up in case the former skipper is ever injured during a series.

Most dismissals in Ranji Trophy 2017-’18

  • Srikar Bharat (Andhra)24 in 6 matches. 
  • CM Gautam (Karnataka)24 in 8 matches
  • Mahesh Rawat (Railways)19 in 6 matches
  • Manoj Singh (Chhattisgarh) 21 in 6 matches
  • Akshay Wadkar (Vidarbha) 21 in 5 matches
  • Rishabh Pant (Delhi) 21 in 7 matches
  • Wriddhiman Saha (Bengal)20 in 4 matches
  • Parthiv Patel 20 in 7 matches
Rishabh Pant is being nurtured to replace MS Dhoni as India's wicket-keeper, at least in the limited-overs format. File Photo.
Rishabh Pant is being nurtured to replace MS Dhoni as India's wicket-keeper, at least in the limited-overs format. File Photo.

Scarce resources

With his experience and current form, Karthik is a logical choice, but his inclusion exposes the dearth of wicketkeeping options at India’s disposal. Saha is 33, while Parthiv and Karthik are both 32.

Among those being groomed for a future role as India’s wicketkeeper are Rishabh Pant and Sanju Samson. However, the selectors have not been quite pleased with their recent performances.

“Let me tell you frankly, those boys still are not up to the level as what we would have expected,” India’s chief selector MSK Prasad was recently quoted as saying. “We will still be giving them chances on India A tours and see that they are nurtured,” he had added.

At 20 and 23, Pant and Samson are still earning their stripes and have some time left before they can be trusted with the important responsibility of keeping for India full-time. And as Prasad pointed out there is still some time before they are able to play to their full potential.

Saha has done a fabulous job in the Test format so far. Dhoni’s accomplishments in the limited-overs arena are unparalled. However, a sudden injury, of the kind faced by Saha, can never be ruled out in competitive sport. This is especially true in the hectic round-the-year schedule in which India operates.

So, it’s quite perplexing that other than the seasoned quartet of Dhoni, Saha, Parthiv and Karthik, India’s next lot for the wicket-keeping role are two youngsters, who are barely in their 20s. What happened in the intertwining 10 years, why aren’t there more options?

Dinesh Karthik has been included in India's squad for the third Test against South Africa. Photo: AFP
Dinesh Karthik has been included in India's squad for the third Test against South Africa. Photo: AFP

Generational gap

Perhaps thanks to Dhoni’s success, the search for any future keepers seems to be directly incidental to their prowess with the bat. While the practice seems fair in context of limited-overs cricket, in the longest format it does leave a lot to be desired. Post Dhoni, India’s search for keepers has been limited. Those who have been tried are also known for their batting ability.

Between Nayan Mongia and Dhoni, India tested as many as eight players for the role of the keeper. Prasad himself was one of the first to be given a go. BCCI’s current General Manager – Operations, Saba Karim, was another. Vijay Dahiya, Sameer Dighe, Deep Dasgupta, Ajay Ratra, Parthiv and Karthik, all came and went before Dhoni came aboard. Even Rahul Dravid took up the responsibility of keeping wickets in between.

Since Dhoni took over, only two other players – Saha and Naman Ojha – put on the gloves for India. Robin Uthappa did keep wickets for India in ODIs, but has since given up the gloves and did not keep wickets for his Ranji side Saurashtra this past season.

Ojha is next in line and has been a constant feature on most India A tours. However, his performances have not been deemed consistent enough to warrant a long stint with the national team. With one game apiece in Tests, ODIs, and two in T20s, Ojha has hardly been given time to prove himself. But due to his prowess with the bat as well as capable performances behind the stumps, he has remained in contention.

Among the top five wicketkeepers who picked up the most dismissals during the recently-concluded Ranji Trophy, none even feature in the list of 50 batsmen to have scored the most runs during the season.

Pant, Parthiv and Saha occupy the sixth, seventh and eighth spots in the list for most dismissals. Despite these numbers, these top five players will never be in contention because of the way they fared with the bat.

This dual responsibility has meant that the likes of Pant and Samson are forever struggling in either aspect, which eventually quashes their chances of being picked for national duty.

Saha is the last known keeper to have made the cut for the team thanks to his keeping abilities. Parthiv’s below-par performance behind the stumps has only highlighted the need for an out an out keeper at least in overseas conditions.

India travel to England this year before going to Australia. For now, other than Saha, the ones lining up for the role are Parthiv, Karthik, Pant and Samson, all of whom are known as batsmen who also keep wickets. Is having a specialist keeper such a bad prospect?

Saha has hardly been a batting mainstay for India in the past year. However, his performance behind the stumps does inspire confidence and leaves one less thing for the team management to worry about. Is having a few of such players on the roster really that bad a deal?