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|October 13, 1998||
Kept in the shadeHarsha Bhogle
It was typical of the class system in cricket that Ian Healy’s march towards a world record that had stood for fourteen years wasn’t accompanied by any of the hype that has marked other similar achievements.
Kapil Dev’s progress towards wicket number 432, for example, was a national obsession and even in Australia, which might make for a more appropriate parallel, Allan Border’s path to the world record was far more eagerly chronicled.
But wicket keepers aren’t the glamour boys of the game. They are more like loyal housekeepers that everyone takes for granted; noticed only if the toys on the floor aren’t cleared. A batsman who makes 20 with a couple of flashy cover drives is more likely to get a mention in the morning newspapers, or in the evening highlights, than a wicket keeper who might have gone through ninety overs without conceding a bye.
Indeed, it was a wicketkeeper who told me very early in life that a good `keeper is one who isn’t noticed. “If you do notice the keeper,” he said, “he is probably more flashy than efficient.”
True words, and particularly typical of Ian Healy though the widespread use of stump microphones has meant that in recent times, he has been heard more than he has been seen.
And yet, the wicket keeper remains the focal point on the field, the nerve centre of the fielding operation, passing the ball around, hopping nimbly away from the stumps to make a poor throw look passable, acknowledging the star fielder who is invariably restless, while throwing a word of encouragement to the laggard and making him feel better than he really is.
It is quite a revelation really, when you try to follow a game through a wicket keeper’s eyes, to see how much he packs into a day.
The reason is that his job requires him to see everything that happens on the field, and so he is a great source of information and a great fund of knowledge to tap. And that is why bowlers are always nipping by to check out a batsman’s footwork, the captain is always looking for clues on a batsman’s mental state (“Is he talking too much to himself? Is he fidgeting around too much with his abdomen guard?”) and just about everyone expects him to knock a batsman out with verbal fireworks from behind.
Wicketkeepers are a bit like the defenders in a soccer match; always around when you need them but rarely in the evening news where they only show the goals. That is why captains and coaches love them while the media and the supporters go after the strikers, the glamorous finishers, the front men who put their signatures on projects that the backroom boys have slogged over.
It was quite symbolic then that two different sets of people looked at Healy’s world record differently. The Australian Cricket Board, on its web page (www.acb.com.au) had Ian Healy as the Cricketer of the Week and made his record the lead story ahead of the prospect of a win that Australian cricket so desperately wanted. There was also an official press release the same evening acnowledging his contribution to Australian cricket.
By contrast, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age, two outstanding newspapers who jointly host a web site, had the Healy story down at number four. Australia’s victory prospects made the lead story and strangely, Mark Taylor’s captaincy achievements merited greater importance!
I think this is a staggering achievement from a staggering cricketer. In most people’s list of admired cricketers, Healy would find a prominent place as much for his wicketkeeping skills as for his attitude to the game. In Rawalpindi, Geoffrey Boycott was talking about the character of the Australian team and their approach to the game when confronted by a tough situation, and Healy symbolises that as much as a Steve Waugh or a Mark Taylor.
When you look at the world game, you cannot fail being struck by the number of fairweather cricketers around; people who perform brilliantly in favourable situations and seem to be completely different people when the tide turns against them. The greats are the ones who stand against the tide and force it back. If you make a list of those who have done that consistently over the last ten years, you will find the name of IA Healy quite prominent there.
To me, there was one match that symbolised this; that, in a little nutshell, told us all why he is not only one of the great cricketers of this generation but also one of the toughest. During the Ashes series of 1997, Australia had recovered from a terrible defeat in the first Test to go 2-1 up. At Nottingham in the fifth, England simply had to win and going into the fourth day, they had a slim chance. Australia, with a lead of around 130, were 167 for 4. The view was that if Steve Waugh, who was 10 not out, could be dismissed early, England might just have a chance on what was still a very good batting wicket.
In the first over, Andy Caddick got Waugh with one that bounced steeply and suddenly, there was a buzz in the air.
The next half hour would be crucial to the fate of the Ashes. England knew that. More important, Ian Healy knew that and the boxer in him suddenly came alive. In the next 30 balls, he made 40 runs with an amazing display of aggression and suddenly, the body language on the field was different. England knew that the match had been taken away from them, they came apart dramatically and to rub it in, Healy then came back and took quite an unbelievable catch, diving to his left. The Ashes were won that evening!
That incident proved two things; that Healy was irreplaceable to the Australians and that he was in fact, the best wicketkeeper-batsman in the world. A little less than a year earlier, that fact had been doubted in the highest circles of Australian cricket. The team had lost a Test match in India quite easily and the one-dayers that followed had, at times, been embarassing. There was a suggestion that Healy was amongst those that could do with a break. His response -- a terrific innings of 162 not out against the West Indies at Brisbane.
It was the innings of a fighter, not of a poet. It was more Steve Waugh than Mark, for Healy the batsman knows what he can do and what he cannot. He doesn’t need to worry about that when he is behind the stumps though, for that is where he is king; not just to the quicker men but even to Shane Warne.
Indeed, Healy’s keeping to Warne has been one of the high points of cricket in the nineties for, like the batsman, he needs to read the spinner. Between them, they have become the best spinner-wicket keeper combination in the history of the game with a total of 45 dismissals. (Warne has also produced 51 catches for Mark Taylor, an amazing statistic in itself).
It is perhaps satisfying that number 356 should have come in Pakistan, for it was a rare blemish (a stumping chance that went for four byes) there that cost Australia a Test match, and as it happened a series, four years ago. Pakistan was also where Healy made his Test debut in 1988 and it was shortly after this that Australia's great revival in Test cricket began. He was, in a manner of speaking then, part of Australia’s rebirth as a Test playing nation and he has since been an integral part of their claim, now legitimate, of being the number one team in the world.
His first reaction on getting the record was to say that he would like to make it tough for the next guy to get in. It might be interesting to see what the next guy, maybe Adam Gilchrist, thinks about it. “Gee, mate, it’s tough enough as it is,” maybe?
Maybe he will get the headlines he deserves when he says goodbye. But having to wait that long is not a good thought, is it?
Mail Prem Panicker
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