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Why does the wicket-keeper wear pads in cricket? Is it a rule, or is it a choice they make?

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No, the wicket-keeper is not required to wear pads. To quote from Law 40.1:

The wicket-keeper is the only fielder permitted to wear gloves and external leg guards.

(my emphasis) Note that's "permitted" not "required". As for why, that's simple - being hit on the shins by a cricket ball hurts.

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