England’s Keeper Dilemma

The England selection committee are doing their level best to imitate cartoon favourite Homer Simpson when asked the question who should be England’s permanent and long-term wicket-keeper. One can imagine the blank faces, head scratching and indecision as if Homer was asked to sacrifice his doughnut or his beer.

Since Australia’s Adam Gilchrist has seemingly raised the bar in the role of a wicket-keeper, it has become integral for this man to make big scores, and England appear to be the only country having considerable problems with whom to select. Many of the nations seem to be settled in this particular position, using one man to feature in both one-day and five-day cricket, only Kumar Sangakkara does not keep in both forms of the game, due to his continued brilliance as a specialist number 3 batsman in Test cricket.

In the latest LG ICC Player Rankings, three wicket-keepers feature in the Top 10 ODI Batsman. Australia’s Gilchrist, India’s Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Sri Lanka’s Sangakkara are setting the example for keepers round the world.

Geraint Jones began the Ashes with the backing of Duncan Fletcher and it was generally considered his position to lose, which he duly did after the first three dismal Tests in Australia when, what is considered to be his strength, his batting, sadly let him down. His work behind the stumps was certainly more impressive than his work in front of them, predominantly faultless throughout with the gloves, accentuating his improvement in this area since he first joined the England squad. However, it is indeed his work with the willow that gained him the advantage in his Ashes selection over Chris Read, but unfortunately he has not delivered. In his last 20 innings he has accumulated a meagre 229 runs at an average of 12.05, a considerable drop, when you take into account after his first 6 Tests he averaged in excess of 40.

So the gloves appeared to be reluctantly thrown back to Nottinghamshire’s Read, an act that would have hurt Fletcher in particular, as if to emphasize his initial selection was incorrect. Read could have counted himself hard done to in losing his place for the beginning of the recent Australian trip, as he kept impeccably on his recall to the side against Pakistan last summer. His scores were neither earth shattering nor disappointing but he did display encouragement for the future as he registered 38, 55, and 33 and kept wicket with the general tidiness that is incomparable within English domestic cricket. The impression given is that the management do not have full faith in his batting capabilities as a number seven and that certain technical deficiencies will always delay Read becoming a regular feature in the Test team. Maybe given time he could iron out his flaws and get to grips fully with the international scene and begin converting his impressive domestic form. Yet it seems that time is one commodity he is not about to be given.

Perhaps for Read to continue as England’s regular, the option of changing team tactics could see him retained, by way of England going into the Tests with only 4 specialist bowlers, with Flintoff as one of them. This would create an opening for an extra batsman, presumably the returning captain Vaughan, fitness permitting, Flintoff dropping to number 7 and Read coming in one place below, thus not placing as much importance on him to contribute big runs.

So we come to the one-day game and a decision that puzzled most within the cricketing world. The debut handed to one wily old keeper by the name of Paul Nixon, which arrived very much out of the blue. Despite his consistent steady service to county cricket since 1989, at the age of 36, Nixon could have been forgiven for giving up on his international ambitions. This choice clearly made as a short term option, signifies the selectors bewilderment as to who to offer the gloves to on a long term and permanent basis for both forms of the game.

You certainly do not begrudge Nixon his moment in the spotlight, he is a fiercely competitive player who will keep things lively on the field and as expected make some typically innovative and crucial runs down the order accompanied by his usual high standard of glove work. If he continues to impress in Australia, a place in the World Cup side that appeared highly unlikely just a few months back could now become a reality, unlike his chance of getting the gloves for the 5-day version.

So who are England likely to turn to next ? Here is a brief look at four of the leading contenders –

1). Matthew Prior (Sussex) – Was born in South Africa and has already appeared for England in the one-day format, generally as an opening bat and with mixed success. Capable of exploiting early powerplays in one-day cricket he also offers a solid batting option down the order in Tests. A career first class batting average of a touch under 40 shows he is no slouch with the bat, crucial if England are to look twice at a keeper, he helped Sussex to the County Championship and the C&G Trophy last season. His development as a wicket-keeper was slightly hindered by having to share the role with Tim Ambrose while at Sussex (especially during seasons 2003 & 2004).

2). James Foster (Essex) – A premature selection for England some 5 years ago when he was aged 21 and to date has represented his country in 7 Tests and 11 one-day internationals. If the selectors required any reminding of what he is capable of, in 2006, Foster produced the largest of elbows in the selectors ribs. He claimed more victims than any other wicket-keeper in either division in the County Championship with 68 and he also exemplified his talent with the bat accumulating 721 runs at a more than reasonable average of 42.41 (he maintained his batting consistency in the C&G Trophy where he averaged 46.33). Lost his England place when he broke his arm, batting in an Essex net, allowing Alec Stewart the chance to take the gloves. Has since developed into a fine gloveman who has found increased consistency with the bat.

3). Steven Davies (Worcs) – Widely acknowledged as England’s future wicket-keeper/batsman, the managemet will be only too aware of the dangers of throwing in a player before he is ready for Test cricket, a la Foster and Read. An undoubted talent, when at the crease Davies’s batting has been described by his director of cricket at Worcester, Steve Rhodes, as having a ‘bit of David Gower’ about it, both a compliment and quite a burden. His glove work is still in need of some fine tuning but he displays a sound basic technique, and is a genuine wicket-keeper as averse to a batter that can keep. His potential remains unquestioned, but he is still young and learning and may have to settle for national selection further down the line.

4). Jon Batty (Surrey) – Rarely gets a mention when there is talk of who England’s next keeper should be, and perhaps unfairly so. Since stepping out of the shadows of Alec Stewart at Surrey, Batty has proved himself worthy of a place among the Surrey superstars. He opens the batting in both forms of the game and was even given the chance to lead the side in 2003. A highly respected professional, who is now 32, and must be reinvigorated since Nixon’s selection, four years his senior. His coach, Alan Butcher, is mystified as to why Batty never enters the equation, and believes the results he has produced put him alongside ‘the best of his type in the country’.

To reiterate the value placed on a keeper to indulge in his fair share of runs, during the period of 1975 and 2000, 50 Test centuries were scored in total by all wicket-keepers. In the 2000’s alone a further 50 Test hundreds have already been made.

It is therefore clear that whoever is next selected for England in this role must be an accomplished batsman that is capable of scoring centuries, however, one would hope that the old fashioned virtues of sound glovework are not compromised too extensively in the search for runs, as it is still a specialist position. The four players mentioned above (along with a handful of other keepers not mentioned – Pothas, Sutton, etc) will certainly all be hoping to get out of the traps quickly in 2007 and catch the eye of the selection committee ahead of the visiting West Indies in the middle of May.

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