Keeping the Faith

I don’t know when it first struck me. Perhaps it was standing in the car park, asking forlornly who the team’s wicketkeeper was. Or lying on the grass at Thorverton, screaming fruitlessly at fine leg to go and fetch the ball that had just been slashed out of my reach through the slips. Possibly it was seeing Geraint Jones clumsily fumbling half the stumping chances that came his way, or asking which of the Under 11s at the district trial would keep – only to witness a sea of faces blankly looking at one another. Where have all the wicketkeepers gone?

Maybe it’s just me, but I never remember there being a shortage of glovemen. Throughout the 1980s, England accumulated a great list of wicketkeepers. Taylor, Downton, Bairstow, French, Russell – then the unflappable Alec Stewart and now… Geraint Jones.

Granted, there are better wicketkeepers in the shires, and it’s just all part of the evolution of the world game that a ‘keeper ought to be able to tell the splice from the toe of the bat, but has anyone stopped and taken stock for a second to consider where playing for the present is taking us?

It’s no coincidence that today’s crop of Indian fast bowlers are so removed from the Eknath Solkars and the Abid Alis of years ago. The character and performance of Kapil Dev, followed by his lieutenants Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad, inspired legions of young Indians to hurl the ball as fast as they could, rather than copying the twirlers of Venkat, Prasanna, Bedi and Chandrasekhar. Witness Ashish Nehra, Zaheer Khan and Lakshmi Balaji – competition for places in the seam battery undreamt of two decades before.

No English child with the slightest passion for our great game could have missed out on this summer’s Ashes spectacular – and none could have missed out on all of Geraint Jones’ seven glove-related aberrations. Ask any of these children what they think of the Papua New Guinean-Welsh-Australian’s keeping and you’ll get a quizzical look and a smile before an unkind – but usually accurate – summary. Generally something along the lines of “not very good”.

I appreciate that it’s difficult – now more so than ever, having spent the best part of 100 overs behind the timber this summer as the inexplicable University ‘keeper shortage hit hard (12,000 students, three wicketkeepers). Yet how’s a nine-year-old meant to be inspired to pull on a pair of gloves when all he sees on television are bowlers holding in (or letting out) the expletives and keepers shame-facedly mouthing apologies or studiously examining the turf?

It’s not just in the UK, either. Brendon McCullum’s never been the safest pair of gloves, we’re all well aware that Kumar Sangakkara isn’t the best keeper in Sri Lanka and the less said about the glovework of the Indian triumvirate of Dhoni, Karthik and Patel the better. England and New Zealand have even experimented with giving Marcus Trescothick, Lou Vincent and Chris Nevin the gloves, whilst Pakistan have turned to Younis Khan. Cricinfo’s recent investigation held only Rashid Latif’s conversion rate of chances to dismissals as above 90%, with Parthiv’s plummeting below 70.

In time, we all reap what we sow, and the more I see of local cricket, the more I fear for the future of the wicketkeeper. I shouldn’t have to explain the basics of footwork during a district trial, and I shouldn’t be left stepping into the ‘keeping breach as nobody else will. I hope I’m wrong, but I see troubled times ahead for the art of the gloveman – they can be so much more than first slips with gloves, but as things stand they may not be for much longer.

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