The 11th edition of the Indian Premier League was an edition filled with narratives. Two banned teams returning, both making the playoffs and the team in yellow, winning the title. New broadcaster. Reshuffled teams. Players from the non-mainstream cricketing nations making their presence felt. And plenty more.

And in a season of such narratives, one of the most significant was how well the wicket-keeper batsmen performed.

One of the byproducts of T20 cricket is that if you are a one-dimensional cricketer, your chances of succeeding in the most competitive league are rather minimal. Your bowlers are expected to deliver a big blow or two with the bat. Your batsmen are expected to bat in multiple positions, as dictated by the situation. And, irrespective of your main trade, you are expected to be a good fielder. If you are going to be one-dimensional, then you better be supremely good in that particular department.

In the age of numbers-driven analytics, and ‘Moneyball’ strategies, a wicket-keeper who doesn’t contribute with the bat is not seen as an attractive proposition, in T20 cricket.

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After 10 years of IPL, 2018 was the season this truly came to the fore. As many as five different keeper-bats scored more than 400 runs in a season, the first time that has happened in the league’s history. And the forefront of this narrative was KL Rahul and Rishabh Pant.

Now, irrespective of how good Rahul was with the bat, he is unlikely to ever feature for India as a wicket-keeper batsman. There are plenty more fighting for that role in all three formats of the game. But what Rahul’s phenomenal season did was to prove one of the pre-season talking points – whether Kings XI Punjab made a recruiting blunder by not hiring a proper wicket-keeper — wrong.

Rahul’s glove-work might be at the complete opposite end of the spectrum as his batting is. The elegance and style that he oozed with the bat in his hand, was replaced by steady, unattractive efforts behind the stumps and that is with no disrespect to the man. For someone who is not a regular ’keeper, it’s hard to recollect an instance where his glovework let his team down, and that is to his massive credit. And to think he did that while being the most important batsman in his team, speaks volumes of his character. He contributed a whopping 31.7% runs that Punjab scored as a team this season.

And notching up similarly insane numbers was Rishabh Pant. Delhi Daredevils have become something of a running joke in the IPL for their consistently bad performances as a team in the league over the latter half of the league’s history. But for a team struggling to create an identity, Pant rose from the ashes of another disastrous campaign to be the heart of this side. Alongside Shreyas Iyer and Prithvi Shaw, Pant is now part of a core that is good enough to succeed in the years to comes, should the franchise rebuild carefully.

It is no surprise that Rahul and Pant were the most important players in their sides’ batting lineups.

Away from the two youngsters, Dinesh Karthik and MS Dhoni, two veterans whose careers have intertwined closely over the past decade, showed they have a second wind in their sails. Dhoni seemed like his old self, hitting sixes at will, plotting miraculous run-chases with a mastery that seemed to have deserted him in the past couple of years. ‘He’s been hitting the ball as well as I have seen him hit,’ was a line repeated (almost verbatim) by analysts and teammates over the past seven weeks.

Karthik, on the other hand, is a transformed cricketer. His talent with the gloves and the bat was never under any doubt, but he added the one element that he has missed for most parts of his career: consistency. Having received the captaincy on the back of a career-defining cameo in the Nidahas Trophy final against Bangladesh, Karthik showed that his transformation under the guidance of Abhishek Nayyar is not a flash in the pan. And leadership seems to have done his confidence a world of good.

And completing the set is England’s Jos Buttler. Before the season began, no one expected that Buttler, by opting to play in the IPL over the English county season once again, will be part of the squad that took to the field at Lord’s against Pakistan. Not even Buttler. But thanks to a run of five 50-plus scores, that included a hat-trick of 80-plus knocks, Buttler was called back to don the whites again.

On the other side of the spectrum, Sunrisers Hyderabad, widely lauded for their recruitment strategies, seem to have missed a trick in this area as both Wriddhiman Saha and Shreevats Goswami proved underwhelming with the bat in hand. Saha would be a bigger disappointment given that he was afforded enough opportunities at the top of the order to show he is not just a red-ball cricketer - chances he failed to grab.

Ishan Kishan played entertaining cameos for Mumbai Indians, and one game-changing knock at the Eden Gardens in a must-win game. For RCB, Quinton de Kock and Parthiv Patel shared the load and produced mixed results. Much like their season, nothing great to write home about.

Historic season

As mentioned earlier, this level of success for wicket-keeper batsmen is unheard of in the IPL. In fact, in the first 10 seasons combined, only nine times have wicket-keeper batsmen crossed 400 runs in a season, three of those happening in 2013 when there were 10 teams involved, and more matches were played.

Interestingly, Dhoni and Uthappa are perhaps the most consistent performers in this role over the years. While the former was a given, Uthappa’s emergence as a viable batsman-turned-keeper option is something fewer teams opt for these days. Except KL Rahul, every other team went with a proper glovesman who can do a job with the bat.

Top 5 seasons for 'keeper-bats till IPL 10

Player (Season - Team) Matches played (Innings) Runs Scored Average / Strike Rate
Adam Gilchrist (2009 - DC) 16 (16) 495
30.93 / 152.3
Dinesh Karthik (2013 - MI)
19 (19) 510
28.33 / 124.08
MS Dhoni (2013 - CSK) 18 (16) 461 41.9 / 162.89
Robin Uthappa (2014 - KKR) 16 (16) 660 44 / 137.8
Quinton de Kock (2016 - DD) 13 (13) 445 37.08 / 136.08

Given how successful the wicket-keeper batsmen have been in 2018, don’t be surprised if teams that did not have the necessary returns this year, tweak their strategy for the upcoming season. Not every team can find a Dhoni and hold on to him forever, but the rest have shown that it’s not tough to recruit smartly.