Ajay Ratra backs KS Bharat to be India’s preferred wicketkeeper for England Tests

New Delhi, Jan 23 (IANS) As India prepares for the opening Test against England in Hyderabad on January 25, there are various decisions to be made, including who will occupy the wicketkeeping slot in the playing eleven.

For the first two Tests against England, India has picked three wicketkeeper-batters – KL Rahul, KS Bharat and the uncapped Dhruv Jurel. The team thrust Rahul into the unfamiliar role of being designated wicketkeeper for India’s tour of South Africa, as conditions weren’t much in favour of spinners.

Now that India is back home, there is a consideration of using a specialist keeper who can handle turning pitches and uneven bounce against Ashwin, Jadeja, Patel, and Yadav. This theory brings Bharat and Dhruv more into the mix.

“When I read the squad after it was announced, I was very surprised over three keepers being picked. But I believe it’s clear that Rahul will be considered as a batter and not as a keeper in this series, as in Indian conditions, they are looking at a proper keeper who can also bat.”

“Yes, Rahul was considered as a keeper for the South Africa Test series as there isn’t much role of spinners in overseas conditions and keeping wickets to spinners is comparatively a tougher task,” said Ajay Ratra, former India wicketkeeper-batter, in an exclusive conversation with IANS.

With Rishabh Pant sidelined due to a horrific car accident nearly a year ago, Bharat stepped up as India’s wicketkeeper in Tests. Later on, Ishan Kishan and Rahul became India’s wicketkeepers for Test matches in the West Indies and South Africa, respectively.

Despite not making significant contributions with the bat in five Tests, Bharat’s extensive experience as a wicketkeeper in 82 first-class games in India, along with his impressive unbeaten 116 against England Lions in the first four-day match for India ‘A’ at Ahmedabad, solidify his position as a strong contender for the wicketkeeper’s role in the Hyderabad Test.

Ratra opined India is using horses for course policy while adding that Bharat’s runs with the bat will hugely interest the team. “Bharat has been in the scheme of things in Test cricket for a long time, but he got chances on and off. Keeping wise, he’s very good and has a very neat collection of the ball. In whatever Tests he’s played for India so far, he’s kept well in turning conditions.”

“But the Indian team will have expectations from him in terms of his batting returns. They would wish for him to excel more with the bat as this is the era of all-rounders and the team management would want for him to contribute with both bat and gloves for the team. His century against England Lions showed that he’s in great form,” he added.

The wicketkeeper’s batting returns in India’s playing eleven has gained more importance in light of the talismanic Virat Kohli pulling out of the first two Tests due to personal reasons. “The wicketkeeper batting at number six, seven and eight becomes very important, especially when it comes to facing the second new ball. It then becomes a phase from where he can take the game anywhere via a knock of 50-60 runs or play long and get a century.

“The things which Rishabh Pant has done with the bat in Test cricket for India is very difficult to match – making tough runs against tough teams, and going on to score impactful centuries. But KS Bharat is still a very decent batter,” added Ratra.

Ratra has the ideal insight into Rahul, Bharat, and Dhruv’s work as wicketkeeper-batters. On the tour of South Africa, he was the fielding coach in ODIs when Rahul donned the keeping gloves and captained India to a 2-1 series win.

He was also a member of India ‘A’ coaching staff for the matches against South Africa ‘A’, where Bharat and Dhruv featured in the matches. Ratra also coached Dhruv in the last domestic season when he was the Uttar Pradesh head coach.

“Dhruv Jurel has been doing really well. He looked a very promising player when I coached Uttar Pradesh. He’s very fit and his work ethics are very good. He then got a chance to play for Rajasthan Royals in IPL 2023, where he did really well.

“He was with us in South Africa as a member of India ‘A’ team, where he put in good performances in the intra-squad and second game. He’s done very well, and it will be a good experience for Dhruv of being with the Test team for the first time.

“He will be closely observing the things in the dressing room and this gives him a chance to learn a lot more. You never know if Dhruv gets a chance in future and with Ishan Kishan still not back, I would say Bharat will be my preferred pick.

Ratra, who played six Tests and 12 ODIs for India, says a wicketkeeper faces plenty of challenges while donning the keeping duties in Tests in the country. “Pitches here have a lot of turn and someone like Ravindra Jadeja bowls at a very fast pace and he is able to extract sharp turn. Also, there is a lot of rough created on Indian pitches during Tests and when the ball lands in the rough, it turns a lot. When the ball doesn’t fall in the rough, then there is comparatively less turn.”

“All of this becomes challenging for wicketkeepers and for tackling it, one needs to keep the basics of wicketkeeping in mind. Like, rise with the pitching of the ball as they will get into a good position accordingly. Moreover, they need to be certain with their judgement, like how much they know about the bowler and how much they are closely watching the bowler’s hand.”

“The more they watch the ball, they can get their sense of judgement of how much the ball is spinning and how fast does it come towards them. Since our wicketkeepers play a lot of first-class games via the Ranji Trophy, they develop a good idea of it.

Today, a wicketkeeper in cricket has responsibilities beyond catching, stumping, and batting. “Wicketkeepers have a crucial role in giving tips to the bowlers and suggest the captain over field placements. A captain stands in the slip cordon and sometimes he may not be there. So, it becomes the duty of the wicketkeeper to tell the captain if the ball is swinging and suggest adding a slip fielder.”

“If the ball is swinging less and the chance of taking a catch reduces, the wicketkeeper can suggest removing a slip fielder and placing it at some other position. But nowadays, wicketkeepers have a huge role to play in DRS referrals. I would say that in between a bowler or a wicketkeeper, it depends a lot more on the keeper.

“The bowlers would feel that they are getting the batter out on their deliveries. When a fast-bowler bowls and is in his follow-through, they don’t get that exact angle to see if the batter is out. But a wicketkeeper gets to see that exact angle and, therefore, it makes his role very important,” concluded Ratra.



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