A rising tide lifts all boats. And so it was with the Indian cricket team. The impressive run of victories last year muscled the ship forward to the extent that flotsam and jetsam were tolerated until the first two Tests in South Africa exposed the futility in sailing amidst them.
The inability of the batsmen and ineptitude of the fielders were glaring, but it was the indifferent wicket-keeping in the second Test that was most traumatic.
It would be pertinent to wonder if Indian cricket has really been spoilt by 12 years of excellent wicket-keeping, courtesy Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Wriddhaman Saha, owing to which the deplorable standards in the second Test became all too conspicuous.
Parthiv Patel was never a good wicket-keeper. If he was he would not have been discarded to start with.
He made his Test debut in 2002 but looked inept even then. However he was just 17 then, and it was hoped that he would improve with time and exposure. Dinesh Karthik replaced him in 2004, though he too looked very dicey.
It was only after Dhoni made his debut, in December 2005, that India's wicket-keeping issues were sorted out. Unfortunately the presence of Dhoni was so good and reassuring that his closest competitors, Karthik and Patel, never improved the quality of their keeping. Alternately, they might have already reached their optimum efficiency and any improvement was beyond them.
Tragically for Indian cricket, none of the states bothered to lift the quality and quantity of the wicket-keeping pool. This kept going steadily downhill, but because Dhoni and Saha were doing such a brilliant job, the lack of depth was never a national issue.
Sadly, the National Cricket Academy (NCA) too did little to augment the resource. Either lack of passion or foresight among decision-makers could be the reason, but that's a matter for another day.
Unlike batting or bowling talent that instantly come to the fore in Indian Premier League (IPL) contests, wicket-keeping was a different issue altogether. None of the franchises made an effort to groom talent. They wanted instant quick-fix solutions and this could be seen in the choice of make-shift wicket-keepers in IPL cricket: Robin Uthappa, KL Rahul, Kedar Jadhav, Ambati Rayudu, and Sanju Samoson.
Keeping wickets for 20 overs in IPL is not a patch on the sort of challenge that a wicket-keeper would encounter over five days of Test match cricket. Still teams could be coaxed into having Under-19 wicket-keepers in their reserves. They could learn a bit by keeping to top professionals in the nets.
This was something that Patel and Karthik missed during their formative years. Nor did they have ideal coaching. This shows in their movements which slow-motion cameras and action replays have enhanced manifold.
The catch that Patel and slip fielder Cheteshwar Pujara let slip between them in the second Test is a case in point. The many replays from various angles made one thing perfectly clear: Patel's movements were all wrong. His body weight was on the heels and thus he first stood up before deciding what to do. Better wicket-keepers would go from crouch position to the edged ball straight away. That is, they would go horizontally from the crouch position unlike Patel who first gets up and then flings his hands out. By then it is too late.
India have always had issues with wicket-keepers. If the issue is magnified at this point of time it is due to the omnipresence of television cameras, snickometer and constant replays. Earlier generation of wicket-keepers were lucky. Their misses and blunders mostly went unnoticed unless a teammate made his displeasure public.
Typically, wicket-keepers in India are not technically sound. One school of thought puts this down to lack of proper coaching during the formative years. Another school of thought believes it is due to the weather: because of hot weather, finger injuries heal very quickly unlike in England when someone collecting the ball faultily in the cold, damp weather could be painfully out of the game for the rest of the season. Thus young Indian wicket-keepers get away with poor catching and collecting technique.
Syed Kirmani, one of India's top wicket-keepers revealed he didn't have gloves during his formative years. He used bricks from a construction site to stop the hard ball! It was sheer talent that took him to the pinnacle of his career.
The untimely injury to Saha has cruelly exposed lacuna in the Indian system. Perhaps Karthik will get to keep wickets in the third Test starting next week. But his abilities behind the stumps are aligned closer to that of Patel than Saha. That's a liability India will have to live with for some time to come. In a nutshell, the wicket-keeping cupboard is bare. Parthiv and Karthik are simply the best of the rest, and Indian cricket has to live with it, at least for now.