Ben Jones analyses a textbook philosophical keeper battle.
This morning, India announced their XI for the first Test against South Africa, which starts tomorrow in Visakhapatnam. Whilst the return of Rohit Sharma to the top of the order was arguably the most headline grabbing choice from the Indian selectors, that decision was announced well in advance and so caused little fuss. Consequently, the main talking point was the call to drop wicket-keeper Rishabh Pant, and replace him with Wriddhiman Saha.
It’s caught the imagination, as a call, largely because of the man heading out of the team rather than heading into it. Pant is a player who incites strong feelings in cricket fans and pundits; for some those feelings are joy and excitement at an outrageously talented 21-year-old, and for some those feelings are frustration and irritation at what they see to be a poor use of those talents.
For those in the latter group, too many loose shots, in too many important moments for India, have been indicative of a young man not temperamentally ready for international cricket. Some choose to criticise his wicket-keeping which, whilst serviceable, is certainly not his strongest suit and he’s been prone to the odd blunder. In England, during his debut series with the ball moving around, he looked less than comfortable.
However, on the raw facts of his batting returns, there is little to criticise about Pant’s performance in the Test arena. He has a Test batting average of 44.35; since he made his debut last summer, the only wicket-keeper with a higher batting average is Quinton de Kock. In that time, Pant has made more centuries than any other keeper in the world, while only Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli have made more tons for India whilst Pant has been in the side. For a player who doesn’t know ‘how to construct an innings’ and plays with too much ‘recklessness’, he has a remarkably good record.
But, as is always the case when examining selection, focusing on just one side of the process is not enough. Saha, the man replacing Pant, has a clearly defined set of skills which set him very clearly as an alternative to Pant, not just the next cab off the rank. A far inferior batsman, with a Test batting average of just 30, Saha’s value to the team is with the keeping gloves, rather than the batting ones. It’s widely acknowledged by those who follow the Indian domestic game that Saha’s glovework is the best around, and his selection in the Test side has been interpreted by some as being in-line with India’s recent tendency to go for specialists rather than all-rounders.
Off the back of this, you can make the argument that Saha’s wicket-keeping excellence gives more to the Indian team than his poor batting record takes away; for Pant, you can argue vice-versa. The question, really, is which of the two equations gives India the best net result. It’s a question which has, across cricketing history, generally been answered with opinion, some of it expert and much of it not, and with the overall conversation conducted along ideological lines. The reason for this is that generally there has not been an accurate means of measuring the impact of keeping (and fielding more broadly) on cricket, in terms of the most tangible, valuable commodity – runs.
At CricViz, we use a metric known as “Fielding Ability”, built from advanced fielding recording data and modelling, which calculates the average number of runs a player contributes or costs, per match, through their fielding. The very best fielders have a very high Fielding Ability, the very worst have a very low Fielding Ability.
It is a measure which confirms Saha’s excellence behind the stumps. Since the start of 2017, Saha has a CricViz Fielding Ability Rating of +5.7, making him the best Test wicketkeeper in the world during that time period (min five matches) and meaning that he saves his team 5.7 runs-per-match more than you would expect from the average wicket-keeper. Pant, by comparison, has a Fielding Ability Rating of -1.5.
The difference between the best and worst keepers – globally – in our database averages out at being worth around 8.5 runs per Test. You would feel, instinctively and according with received wisdom in the game, that having a good keeper in Asia would be more valuable, given the challenges of keeping against spin. The numbers seem to back this up – the difference between the best and worst keepers – in Asia – in our database averages out at being worth around 30 runs-per-Test, or 15 runs-per-innings.
Which is, of course, the difference between Pant and Saha’s batting averages in Test cricket. If Pant was the worst keeper in world cricket, with Saha remaining as the best, then their net contributions would be the same. And yet – while Pant is certainly a below average keeper, he isn’t the worst keeper in the world. The gap between their Fielding Ability is significant, but not 30 runs or even close to that. Their net contributions move closer together when Saha’s keeping is taken into consideration, but Pant is still offering more to India, on average. The gap between their batting is far more relevant than the gap between their keeping.
Whenever this sort of selection battle comes up, your mind is always drawn to the other famous keeper-batsman v pure-keeper selection quandaries: Russell v Stewart, Gilchrist v Healy, Prasanna v Sangakkara. Everyone has their position, and more often than not it’s a philosophical one rather than based on the actual situation and players at hand. Keeping is a noble art, which should not be sullied in the pursuit of run-scoring, say one side; the idea of a pure keeper is an archaic luxury, say the other. Yet what we can see is that, rather than simply selecting on the basis of vibe and personal preference, the qualities and skills involved can be measured, quantified, and interrogated.
In truth, there is almost certainly a political element to the decision to axe Pant, one which may or may not benefit the team overall. Internal rifts which create an unpleasant environment should be dealt with and, if the Indian coaching staff have seen fit to remove Pant for reasons along those lines, then so be it. However, what we can see through this analysis is that the cricketing reasons for dropping him, particularly on the grounds of his keeping, are minimal.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.