If Deep Dasgupta were a goalkeeper, we'd never win. But fortunately, the boy, who according to Geoff Boycott's count says "come on Anil bhai" 17 times in 6 balls, plays a different sport. A simple, affable wicketkeeper, Dasgupta has got extreme reactions from many quarters, especially the Indian bowlers. A normally placid Harbhajan Singh looked close to violent in Ahmedabad after an edge from Craig White was spilled by the keeper. The spinner held himself back with some words that his mother would tell you he didn't learn in her house. That was not the only spill from behind the stumps, as Anil Kumble will inform you with somewhat moist eyes. The ball often slips past the new keeper's gloves, sometimes even through his legs. When he soils his whites, it's a dive that is mostly an afterthought. His reflexes are so bad that when Mark Ramprakash's edge off Sarandeep Singh in the Bangalore Test hit the keeper's right glove, it did not even create a decent deflection on its way into first slip Rahul Dravid's rumoured safe hands. On a good day, Dasgupta may have made contact with the ball and looked with familiar hurt as it bounced off his gloves, on to the grass.
John Wright can fix this problem. Give the boy some glue. Soon. But to be fair to Dasgupta, before he came along there were only two openers in the Indian dressing room—Shiv Sunder Das and a bottle cap remover. After many seasons, finally, there is a number two with a Test batting average of over 40. The trouble is that he may just concede more than that on the field. That's why it seems the Indian selectors have the strange gift of serendipity, which, by one definition, is when you search for a needle in the haystack, and find the farmer's daughter instead. They went searching for a keeper and found an opener. But is Dasgupta really a "find"?
In the genre of horrible-keepers-good-batsmen, we already possess Rahul Dravid. Do we need two from that tribe? Perhaps, we do. Dravid should stand wearing gloves, 10 yards behind Dasgupta. Even in the appealing department Dasgupta comes across as a slow learner who raises his hands but is never sure of his question. Among other instances, after Michael Vaughan dramatically handled the ball in the third Test right under the eyes of our keeper, Dasgupta was only about to walk back to his position looking like a clueless tourist who has somehow been thrown into a big green field.
That's why people are missing one man who for years stood like a rock behind the stumps screaming "Aai ga" when the most difficult bowler in the world to keep to, Kumble, bowled just about any way he wanted. Why is Nayan Mongia not in the team? He was taken to Australia in 1999-00, after "the management" said M.S.K. Prasad was injured. But mysteriously, Prasad became fit again and Mongia sat out the series. He did play two Tests when the Australians came here but was dropped for the Chennai Test. But before that, "there was a fight among the selectors", according to a board member. What's the mystery behind the rumoured dislike for Mongia among the powerful three—Ganguly, Tendulkar and Dravid? When Outlook spoke to Mongia on his 32 birthday with cruel unpleasant questions as gifts, he only answered in questions like: "Why is this happening to me?" But he believes he'll "be back in the India team. I know it". His listless batting was perhaps the only official reason the management could find to explain his exclusion. And that's bad reasoning according to former keeper Syed Kirmani."They are searching for a batsman who can also keep. That's not the way to look at it. You have to find a keeper who can also bat."
The keeper-trouble of India, which has made five men don the gloves in the last two years, essentially has its roots in India's batting disorder. A stable batsman who can keep the wickets seemed to be the solution. That was before Dasgupta proved that a bad keeper is simply unacceptable even if he is a good bat. Apart from free byes, if on an average a keeper drops two catches every inning, then India is always bowling against 13 men.
But while the general opinion is that Mongia is the answer, his return may not be easy. He was once suspended for selfish play. Also, once he refused to sacrifice his wicket even for Azharuddin who was almost pleading in the face of a sure run-out. Wadekar, who's managed the Indian team, understands the complex equations in the Indian team. "Let's not pretend that we are not selfish by nature. Mongia was only trying to survive. It's not justifiable but it's understandable".
The selection of a keeper, though, has not been a very holy process in India. Says former Test opener Ashok Mankad: "Often we find that the captain of the team brings in the keeper from his home state." Ganguly got Dasgupta in for the series in South Africa. After the odis, he wanted Samir Dighe. But Dighe got injured before playing a match. And Dasgupta made a re-entry and impressed all with his batting. Among the few slurs on Sachin's name has been his persistence with Mumbai keeper Samir Dighe. Hyderabad's M.S.K. Prasad made his international debut in 1997-98 when Azharuddin was the captain. These factors may work against Mongia, especially when he is someone who will never win the Mr Congeniality contest in the dressing room. Selection committee chairman Chandu Borde himself concedes that Mongia is possibly the best we have. Mid-Day's sports editor Clayton Murzello says that one name that has to be in the Indian team soon is Haryana's Ajay Ratra. Barely 20, he is said to be a wall behind the stumps, with deep safe pouches too. He is not a stopper. He is a keeper.
But are there any quality keepers? Former safe-hands Kiran More believes there are, "but without good grooming they cannot perform". Mankad doesn't understand why the selectors can't find a decent keeper in a country where at least 60 gloved men are playing the Ranji Trophy. But the reality may be different as former keeper Chandrakant Pandit points out: "Boys just don't want to be keepers. They want to bat and bowl. They feel a keeper just wastes his time." So, not many boys want to stand behind the stumps and say Aai ga anymore. In India, it's chiefly the no-talent fat boy who's made to keep wickets, so that the loser can be sent to chase the ball or extricate it from under a parked car. And that's the biggest problem for us.
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