By Cameron Ponsonby, ECB Reporters Network
The wicketkeeper is always there. We don’t even bother mentioning them when describing fields.
Your outswinger bowls to a 6-3, your offie to a 4-5. 11 players on a team, nine fielding, one bowling and one keeping. This is the way. It always has been. And it always will be.
Except in 2015, when in the midst of a T20 against Northants, Worcestershire got rid of their wicketkeeper entirely.
“It had all come about because of MS Dhoni”, Steve Rhodes, then Worcestershire director of cricket, explains.
"He’s an unbelievable thinker of the game, and in one of the Test matches against England a year earlier, he had Ravindra Jadeja bowling left-arm spin to a left-handed batter, and he was desperate to have two catchers down the legside but also a fielder out on the sweep.”
However, the rules of cricket state that you’re not allowed to have three fielders behind square on the legside.
But, rather than sacrifice and only have one slip and a fielder ready for a top-edged sweep, or two leg slips and no fielder ready for the sweep, he placed himself, as wicketkeeper, at a very fine leg-slip, which allowed India to keep both other positions in place.
No rules broken, but all problems solved.
“At the time I didn’t understand why he’d done it. But then after, when he explained it, I thought, well, that’s just typical Dhoni brilliance,” Rhodes said.
“He’s solved a problem for himself and the team. But how many times do we play this game and just accept the way the rules are? Are there new things that we can come up with?”
The move from Dhoni got the cogs in Rhodes' head turning and he set his coaching team a challenge. Go away, and when you come back, I want everyone to present a left-field idea that we’ll talk through and then decide whether it’s right or rubbish.
“And we came up with nothing!” Rhodes laughs, “except this idea of at times we were finding it very frustrating, particularly with the spinners bowling, that we were one fielder short.
“So could we maximise the ‘keeper more relevantly?”
The problem that Worcestershire wanted to tackle was that between Moeen Ali, Saeed Ajmal and captain Daryl Mitchell, was that their attack contained three offspinners (“Or off-cutters, more than offspinners, in my case,” Daryl Mitchell caveats).
And generally speaking for offies, the compromise required in the field is that you either had two men behind square on the offside to protect against the reverse sweep, or you only had one so you could then also plug a gap at midwicket.
But could you have your cake and eat it?
From his career as a wicketkeeper in the early stages of T20, Rhodes recalled how hardly any balls would ever reach him when the off-spinners were bowling.
So the plan was hatched that when faced with a batter who reverse swept, the wicketkeeper Ben Cox would discard his gloves and move to a very fine short third man, which would allow for two fielders behind square and a midwicket.
Worcestershire trialled it in their practice, with Mitchell commenting that given his two strengths were to slice the ball behind square and to punch it through midwicket, the two areas that the plan plugged up, that it, “annoyed the life out of me.”
“For me, as captain, I guess that influenced my thinking,” he said.
Worcestershire were ready to take the plunge, but before the plan was finally rolled out, Rhodes checked with all the relative authorities that it was legal so that they weren’t at risk of bringing the game into disrepute.
The green light came back and so finally the day arrived against Northamptonshire, where with 67 required to win off 30 balls, the ball in Moeen Ali’s hands, and most crucially, the reverse sweeping Josh Cobb on strike, ‘Operation No-Keeper’ was launched.
“And it worked pretty well,” Mitchell chuckled, “we won the game, Cox took off his gloves and had his trousers under his pads which was fine. And so we had a very fine third man and a backward point so we could stop the reverse dink and the hard reverse sweep.”
One bye was run through to the absent keeper, but ultimately Worcestershire won at a canter by 14 runs.
Rhodes is also keen to stress that one of the core criticisms of the plan, that a batter would simply run at the spinner, was of no issue to them at all.
“We didn’t mind if the guy was going to charge down the wicket; the bowler knew that because there was no keeper there,” he said. “And so that was a good thing for the bowler, because we then knew what he was going to do.”
Such was the success of its debut outing, that the tactic was used on two further occasions, with Mitchell conceding that Worcestershire got a bit “giddy” with the plan and even attempted it with the medium paced Jack Shantry against Warwickshire.
Shantry, then promptly sent one down the legside that flew for five wides.
“That brought that experiment to an end,” Mitchell recalls dryly.
However, for Rhodes, even all these years later, an element of irritation remains in his voice that perhaps they pulled the plug on it all too soon.
“We should’ve got Jack to bowl some down the legside to see if Coxy could’ve got across,” Rhodes laments.
“And it’s a tricky one, it needs a lot more exposure to see if it would work. And I think we got scared a little bit and weren’t brave enough.”
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On all topics, Mitchell and Rhodes are aligned on how the plan came about and how it was executed. No doubt a symptom of the planning that went into what was a unique and well researched plan.
But, they do differ on whether they’re surprised that it hasn’t been used since they rolled it out seven years ago.
Rhodes talks of the little things that we still do as a habit in the sport, even if they are entirely counterproductive.
Having the keeper up with four to win off one ball, for example.
“A little leg bye and it’s gone”, he explains. The wicketkeeper, Rhodes believes, is a much more malleable position than the way we currently use it.
Mitchell, however, believes that as a plan in isolation, that the game has already moved on too quickly for it still to be relevant.
In 2015, he explains, players were paddling their reverse sweep, but now they hit it, meaning that the very fine short third where the keeper moved to is now a redundant position. You need two genuine backward points. Not one-and-a-half.
Nevertheless, it was an historic move by Worcestershire.
There may have been times in history when sides had gone without a keeper, such as in the manner Rhodes mentioned of four being required off the last ball, but never had it been used in such a genuine tactical manner within the game, with a specific type of bowler and batter required for the plunge to be taken.
As a strategy it is remembered as being a purely run-saving act late in the game, but that simply wasn’t the case. It was a piece of history, and Worcestershire had MS Dhoni to thank for it.
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