Thursday, 26 May 2016

Charting the evolving role of the wicketkeeper

Last week's test between England and Sri Lanka belonged to Jonny Bairstow. A century on his home ground and a match winning one at that- rescuing England from 83-5 and dragging them to a total out of the reach of Sri Lanka's callow batting line up. Behind the stumps in his role as wicketkeeper he took 9 catches, making it an all round good 3 days at the office.

Bairstow is an example of what would seem to have become a pretty established pattern for the modern test match side: picking your wicketkeeper with a heavy emphasis on their willow-wielding ability, and a lesser focus on their glovemanship than might have been seen in previous generations. I don't think I'm going too far out on a limb to suggest that Bairstow is not the best pure wicketkeeper available to England, but out of the plausible  keeping options he's the best of the batsmen, at least for the longer format.

This has made me wonder: how much has the wicketkeeper's role evolved over time? How much more are teams relying on their keepers to score runs? And has an increased emphasis on the batting prowess of keepers had a measurable cost in their performance behind the stumps?

The simplest thing to think would be that picking keepers based on their batting would come at a price in catches and stumpings. But can this be seen in the data?

I particularly enjoyed researching this post, not least because answering those questions will take not one, not two, not three but four graphs.

First of all, the run scoring. The graph below shows the run scoring output of designated  wicketkeepers, as a percentage of total runs scored by batsmen in tests from 1946-2015. The red points are the year by year data and the blue line is the decade by decade average. The decade by decade averages give you a better sense of the long term trends.

This data shows a clear evolution towards a greater dependence on wicket keepers to provide runs. Wicket keepers provided only 6% of runs in the immediate post-war period, but they now provide nearly 10%. This is, of course, very much in line with conventional wisdom. One thing that struck me, however is how steady this increase has been. I had expected to see a rather more dramatic increase in the 90s and early 2000s after Adam Gilchrist made the swashbuckling batsman-keeper cool, but the importance of the wicketkeeper's runs had been rising steadily for a while (with a bit of a dip in the 1980s).

But what of their behind the stump performance? If teams' enthusiasm for batsman-keepers is leading to a lower standing of keeping, one might expect that to be reflected in how wickets are taken. If keepers are worse than they used to be then perhaps modes of dismissal which depend on them- catches behind and stampings- will decrease relative to other, non-keeper dependent, modes of dismissal.

The next graph shows the percentage of total wickets that were catches by the keeper in tests from 1946-2015. (Again, red points=year by year, blue line=decade by decade)

Far from decreasing, the reliance on wicketkeeper catches to provide wickets increases steadily post 1946- over the same period that keeper run scoring was on the rise- before hitting a plateau around the 1990s. Modern wicketkeepers provide about 19% of the total wickets through catches, and that figure has shown any noticeable downward shift since keepers have been expected to provide more runs. It may well be that what this graph is telling us has most to do with the evolution wicket keeping and bowling styles rather than keeping quality, but in any case its true that modern teams rely on wicket keepers both for more runs, and for more catches than teams 70 years ago. As the responsibility of keepers has increased their responsibility as glovemen has not diminished at all.

Wicket keepers can also contribute to dismissals via stampings. This is a much rarer mode of dismissal than caught behind but, we some may argue its a truer test of wicket keeping skill. The graph below shows the percentage of wickets that were stumpings over the same period as the graphs above.

The contribution of stumpings to the total wickets decreases in the post war years- over the same period that the contribution of catches increase (perhaps reflective of a decrease in standing up to the stumps? I'm not sure). But it's held steady between 1.3% and 1.9% for the last 50 years. So, wicket keepers continue to hold up their end in whipping off the bails.

If we can't see any strong changes in wicket keeping contributions to wickets, what about other ways of measuring wicket keeping quality? Byes, for instance. The graph below shows the number of byes conceded per 1000 deliveries in test cricket from 1946-2015.

The rate of conceding byes has hardly changed in 70 years. Looking at the decade by decade trends you could argue that it was on a steady decrease up to the 90s before taking an uptick, but these changes are miniscule- corresponding to maybe 1 extra bye conceded in a 1000 deliveries.

So, while its clear that more runs are indeed required of the modern keeper, the expectations behind the stumps have not shifted that much. Keepers contribute a consistent ~19% of wickets through catches with an additional ~1.5% through stumpings. They concede about 7 byes per 1000 balls and have barely budged from that for 70 years. Considering that the expectations on their batting have increased, while they have remained steady in other aspects of the game, keepers arguably have more on their plate than ever before.

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