Ian Healy was one of the men behind Australia’s resurgence in the 1990s © Getty Images
Ian Healy was, without a doubt, an all-time great behind stumps © Getty Images

Ian Healy, born April 30, 1964, is one of the greatest wicketkeepers of all time. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at one of the men behind Australia’s resurgence in the 1990s that gradually paved the way to their invincibility in the 2000s.

As a rampant Adam Gilchrist was busy changing the concept of the role of the wicketkeeper completely in the 2000s, people suddenly began to pick him in all sorts of all-time Australian XIs, or even World XIs. Their logic was simple: a man like Gilchrist is an asset to any side by virtue of his ability to decimate any bowling attack and win Tests with his batting.

While the logic is quite valid, there is a counter-argument: the wicketkeeper’s primary role is to keep wickets. A quality wicketkeeper not only saves runs, he also effects some amazing dismissals, and decides Tests with his abilities behind the stumps. Of course, he does contribute with the bat, but it is his superlative skills with the gloves that auto-selects him for any squad.

Ian Healy was one such legend. I cannot say for sure who the greatest batsman or bowler I have seen is, but the choice for the best wicketkeeper remains unchallenged. That has to go to Ian Healy.

Healy was supple and lithe, and moved with ease behind the stumps. He bent low, and his tough knees, and flexible thighs and calves meant that he rose and moved very quickly in either direction. His glovework was of the highest quality: he could take amazing catches against the fast and swing bowlers, and his anticipation of Shane Warne’s entire repertoire (followed by his trademark “baaaauling, Shaaain”) made him stand out.

Additionally, being a fiercely proud Australian, Healy charged up the team with his aggressive attitude (which sometimes went a bit overboard, often ending up in trouble with the administration). His iron determination, insatiable stamina, ability to handle pain, and impeccable work ethic made him an idol for all wicketkeepers of his contemporary and subsequent generations.

Still in the early days of coaching, Healy felt “Wicket-keeping is a bit thankless and a bit lonely. If you’re doing badly, you have to work it out yourself a lot of the time.” He also felt that “money has to be secondary; otherwise you won’t last long in the game” — an attribute some of the stars of today possibly need to follow.

He took 366 catches and 29 stumpings from 119 Tests, which meant that he finished with a career tally of 395 victims — a world record at that time. He also scored 4,356 runs from 119 Tests at 27.39, and all four of his First-Class hundreds had come in Test cricket, which probably proved that he saved his best for the highest level. Additionally, in 168 ODIs Healy accounted for 194 catches and 39 stumpings (the tally of 233 victims was also a world record at that time), and he had scored 1,764 runs from 168 ODIs at an average of 21.04 and a more than impressive strike rate of 83.8.

Healy appeared on the scene when Australia was still a developing side instead of a dominating one, and answered for good the question whether Greg Dyer or Tim Zoehrer should be the Test wicketkeeper. Healy was selected to tour Pakistan in 1988-89 after playing just 6 First-Class matches: Greg Chappell, the Australian selector, had spotted him playing for Queensland, and thought he was a serious talent.

Healy scored 26 and 21 on Test debut at Karachi, taking a solitary catch. He took 5 victims in his third Test at Lahore, and had a modest series in which Australia lost. Australia also lost the next series at home against West Indies, but the selectors were impressed with the Queenslander and had decided to persist with him. In the process Healy also scored his first fifty — a well-compiled 52 at Perth.

He was still to find his groove, though — which came in the 1989 Ashes. Healy did not score a lot of runs, but impressed all and sundry with his superlative glovework. He took 14 catches in the series — but that is hardly a sufficient statistic to demonstrate his abilities with the gloves. In the subsequent home series that involved 7 Tests against New Zealand, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, Healy took 23 catches.

The 1993 Ashes

Despite making his mark as a top-notch wicketkeeper, Healy’s batting form still remained elusive. He finally came to his elements with a 102 not out at Old Trafford, dominating an unbeaten 180-run partnership with Steve Waugh. He followed the century with a destructive 80 at Edgbaston and a decisive 83 not out at The Oval, and was subsequently named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year. On his return home, he immediately scored 113 not out against New Zealand at Perth.

The tour also involved Shane Warne’s dramatic entry into the Ashes, and the two formed a combination that would last for several years. Not only did he take the edges standing absurdly close to the bat, he responded like a flash of lightning if the batsman’s unsuspecting foot moved an inch over the line: indeed, Healy had 2 stumpings in his first 39 Tests, but after the advent of Warne, he had 10 stumpings from the next 14.

Vice-captain of Australia

Healy had earlier led Australian XIs against the West Indians in 1991-92 and 1992-93, in addition to leading Australia in the Hong Kong Super Sixes. He also succeeded Allan Border as the Queensland captain, and was considered a natural successor to Border as the captain of Australia.

However, probably due to his confrontational image and the fact that only one wicketkeeper (Barry Jarman) had led Australia in the past hundred years, Mark Taylor got the nod ahead of him. ‘Heals’ did not hold a grudge, and forged a pair with the new captain — both as the vice-captain, and when they stood next to each other as wicketkeeper and first slip.

Healy continued with his supreme abilities behind the stumps, and with time he emerged as not only the best contemporary wicketkeeper, but also as a contender for the leading wicketkeeper of all times. Critics compared him with the all-time greats, especially for his amazing prowess against bowling of all kinds.

From the South Africa series he hit a purple patch with the bat: he scored 4 fifties in 4 Tests (two in South Africa, two in the Pakistan series that followed), and then, in the home Ashes series, he scored 74 and 51 not out at Adelaide.

In the third of those four Tests, at Karachi, Healy missed a crucial stumping — the first of his two major lapses: as Inzamam-ul-Haq tried to flick a leg-break from Warne, the ball spun between his bat and pad, and in Healy’s own words, “I thought it was going to bowl him and got a bit stiff with my gloves and body – if your eyes don’t stay with the ball as it spins past the bat, you are in trouble. The height wasn’t a problem, but my glove didn’t move to the ball, so when it missed the off stump it buzzed low between my legs and down to the boundary.” Inzamam scored 58 not out, and Pakistan stole the Test by a 1-wicket victory.

It was in 1994 that Healy missed a Test — the only one of his career. He had broken a finger, and was replaced by Phil Emery against Pakistan at Lahore. Emery completes the answer to the common quiz question: Who were the three wicketkeepers for the Australian Test side between 1988-89 and 2006-07?

His greatest performance with the bat was to follow, though: in the hometown at Brisbane, he walked out to bat at 196 for five, and thrashed his way to 161 not out off 250 balls. He hit 20 boundaries, and completely dominated an attack comprising of Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh, and Ian Bishop, and followed it a 50-ball 45 not out in the second innings. The choice for the Man of the Match award was unanimous.

Ian Healy was one of the men behind Australia’s resurgence in the 1990s © Getty Images
Ian Healy was one of the men behind Australia’s resurgence in the 1990s © Getty Images

Captain of Australia and the axing

Owing to Taylor’s injury, Healy got to lead Australia in 8 ODIs against five different oppositions, 4 of them on South African soil. He did a commendable job, and won 5 of the matches, including leading Australia to a victory in the epic ODI series against South Africa in 1996-97.

However, a year later, came the major blow: the Australian selectors decided to field separate teams for Tests and ODIs, and the axe came on Taylor and Healy. Taylor’s style was considered unsuitable for the shorter version, and Gilchrist’s explosive batting meant that Healy had to be dropped. Both Taylor and Healy went vocal with their resentment against the decision.

Taylor and Healy combined in another world record as well. They remain the only two batsmen to have been run out in each innings of a Test twice.

Final days

Healy was still indispensable in the longer version, though. He kept on contributing with the bat and the gloves. His aggressive, unconventional batting kept on producing useful runs for his side. His final hundred came in the Ashes of 1996-97 — once again at Brisbane — when he thrashed the English attack to score 134.

In 1998, Healy caught Wasim Akram off Colin Miller at Rawalpindi to go past Marsh’s record. It may sound a coincidence, but Taylor, on the virtue of being sacked and dropped, came back in phenomenal style in the next Test, scoring 334 not out and 92.

Healy’s second major lapse came in the Kensington Oval Test of 1999. When Brian Lara was guiding West Indies to 311 in one of the greatest ever finishes, he put him down with only seven runs left for a victory. The runs were duly scored.

Towards the end of the millennium, the selectors sent out a message to Healy that they wanted Gilchrist for the longer version as well. Healy requested them to allow him another season, but to no avail. He then pleaded for a single Test — so that he could retire at Brisbane (and also have a shot at 400 Test dismissals) — but the selectors were adamant. A distraught Healy quit from all forms of cricket, while still at the top.

Seven years later, when Warne, Glenn McGrath, and Justin Langer were given the opportunity to bow out together amidst much public ovation, Healy made his disappointment very clear, mentioning “I think if you are a 100-Test player you deserve to walk off the field saying goodbye”, and being vocal on the unfair treatment dished out to Border, David Boon, himself, and Mark Waugh.

Sledging

Healy went on record saying that sledging is ‘not a positive thing’. However, he has been involved in at some of the most famous sledges in history.

The rotund Arjuna Ranatunga was facing Warne, and had resisted all of Warne’s attempts to lure him out of the crease. Finally, when Warne was close to giving up, Healy suggested “put a Mars Bar at a good length — that should do it.”

He was at Ranatunga again when the batsman asked for a runner on a hot night at Sydney with the famous words “you don’t get a runner for being an overweight, unfit, fat c**t”.

On another occasion, Steve Waugh asked Ricky Ponting to field close to the long-nosed Nasser Hussain with the words “field at silly point; I want you right under his nose.” Healy immediately added “that could be anywhere inside a three-mile radius.” Hussain laughed so hard that he lasted only three balls.

Then, again, he was sometimes at the receiving end as well. Once Michael Atherton edged one to Healy, but the appeal was turned down. As Healy passed Atherton, he called him a “f***ing cheat”, to which Atherton nonchalantly responded “When in Rome, dear boy.”

Later years

It did not take time for Healy to make a seamless entry into the Channel Nine team, where he works till now. The unfair treatment dished out to him by the selectors was more than compensated when he was named in Australian Cricket Board’s Team of the Century — ahead of stalwarts like Bert Oldfield, Don Tallon, Wally Grout, and Marsh. Additionally, the Queensland Bulls Player of the Year Trophy has been named after him.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ovshake and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)