As England toiled under the hot Chennai sun against marauding Indian batsmen during the sultry fourth afternoon of the recent test match a rather frivolous idea came to mind. Alastair Cook introduced Keaton Jennings’ occasional medium pacers into the attack and the rather novel thought of ‘wouldn’t it be amusing to see Jonny Bairstow remove his pads and turn his arm over’ began to ruminate. Such an idea seems to polarise opinion in the cricketing world. Those vociferously against the concept immediately cite, in a tone possessing much pompous gravitas, the match being trivialised or made into a mockery were such an anomalous intervention to occur. But in such a situation as experienced by England (match played on a flat, lifeless wicket, opposition scoring runs akin to a T20 equivalent, regular bowlers taking a pasting) is such a notion really mocking the contest when the idea of a contest appears to have evaporated? (England’s woeful fifth day batting performance not withstanding)
The practice of employing one’s wicket-keeper as a bowler has proved rather scarce in recent test matches though, perhaps adding that sense of triviality that is oft cited as a reason to maintain the status quo. Indian cricket doyen MS Dhoni was arguably the exception to the rule, developing something of an occasional penchant for dispensing with his pads and sending down a few deliveries of medium pace to the point where such an occurrence took place five times over a five year period. Maybe a sense of familiarity was bred to the point where the decision lost some of its immediate impact during the later years of his captaincy tenure so that the practice became accepted.
Other than the Ranchi native the only wicket-keeper asked to bowl in a test match during the last decade was Australia’s Matthew Wade during the December 2012 test against Sri Lanka in Hobart. The decision of Michael Clarke to proffer an over before tea onto his gloveman raised a few eyebrows as the hosts chased success but Clarke later defended his decision under the auspices of trying all tactics in pursuit of victory.
Clarke’s choice of bowler may have prompted a handful of censorious barbs from sections of the media but the passage of play offers an intriguing insight into the effect of the tactic on the contest and the players involved. Despite the result of the match very much remaining in the balance, the sight of Wade dispensing with his pads provoked a few smiles and a sense of curiosity on the field of play. One of the chief questions amongst those watching the play would have circled around who would replace Wade behind the stumps. The answer quickly arrived in the form of the late Philip Hughes, who donned the pads and gloves with a cheeky grin and an air of childlike enthusiasm. Watching the passage of play on You Tube, one’s curiosity is further stoked by thoughts of how the new gloveman will fare should a tricky delivery or two come his way. Wade, who had never before bowled in any form of professional cricket, delivered a testing over to Thilan Samaraweera at reasonable pace, completing a maiden but not requiring Hughes’ wicket-keeping skills as the Sri Lankan batsman put bat to ball on all six occasions.
Nevertheless, Hughes’ smiles and smirks were partly replicated by his skipper as Australia indulged in some leftfield thinking. In the hyper-serious, near joyless existence that top level professional sport has become the few minutes of frivolity provided a sense of carefree amusement and curiosity. One could argue that the short passage of play provided a welcome break from the norm. As a recent television advert highlighted: When was the last time you did anything simply for the fun of it? Ultimately, the experiment did not work, although Australia eventually won the contest, but the moment at least provoked that sense of joy and escapism that is so often lacking in professional sport. Amid the carnage and bludgeoning, and the inevitable gnashing of teeth, of the fourth afternoon in Chennai a similar tactic could well have eased the pain a little.