Mike Holmans September 8, 2008

Solving England’s keeping conundrum

The last regular England keeper to be a rabbit was George Duckworth back in 1930 – but with all-rounders like Gubby Allen, Walter Robins, Maurice Tate and Jack White in the team, you can afford a keeper who can’t bat, and England are not in that

"Pick the best keeper." Spoken by a Nottinghamshire member at yesterday’s Pro40, this mantra meant “Pick Chris Read for England”, but more generally it implies that selectors should not waste their time considering wicketkeepers’ batting.

I’ll come back to the batting, but is there an accepted definition of the best keeper?

Keeping for England, Read has not impressed me because he minimises obvious errors rather than maximising chances. He didn’t drop as many as Matt Prior (on his first go-round) but there were a few that he ought to have gone for but didn’t, thus making it look as though first slip was at fault; the new version of Prior has no such qualms.

His other main fault was one common to all England glovemen since Jack Russell – standing too far back to the quickies. This makes it easier for the keeper to take the ball routinely, but too many edges fall short of the slips who align themselves with him. If those missed edges were properly seen as keeping errors, it would concentrate keepers’ minds wonderfully.

But taking the ball is not the whole job. The keeper is the only fielder with the same privileged insight into how much movement bowlers are getting and how batsmen are shaping as the TV viewer. In “Calling the Shots”, Michael Vaughan went out of his way to praise the intelligence-gathering of Geraint Jones, the implication being that Read was a less useful spy.

The skipper manages which bowlers to use and where to place the fielders, but it is the keeper who acts as the foreman of the fielding team: it is his job to chivvy the sloppy and applaud the brilliant, to encourage the bowlers and generally exude energy and keenness. Paul Nixon in the last World Cup was the best energizer in recent years while Prior was simply an annoying loudmouth and Read was almost Trappist.

There is more to keeping than is immediately visible; even so, it is unrealistic to ignore batting unless you intend him to bat at nine or below.

The last regular England keeper to be a rabbit was George Duckworth back in 1930 – but with all-rounders like Gubby Allen, Walter Robins, Maurice Tate and Jack White in the team, you can afford a keeper who can’t bat, and England are not in that fortunate position.

Alan Knott and Godfrey Evans were superb, but they were not the best technically in their times – Bob Taylor and Keith Andrew were even more brilliant (though much less flashy) but were unlikely to deliver regular half-centuries. (Despite that, Taylor succeeded to Knott’s berth because the “keepers” who could bat could not keep to even a minimum standard for Tests.)

Tim Ambrose’s time is up. He has had ten Tests but his batting was vastly overestimated. Most batsmen mentally map the pitch as “play forward”, “back” and “hmmm”, but Ambrose’s mental map is marked “back” and “Here Be Dragonnes”, which is useless unless the bowlers are exceptionally generous.

Prior was clearly chastened by the criticism of his first run as England’s keeper. In the recent ODIs he showed marked improvement both technically and at curbing his blabbering gob. He is without doubt the best batsman amongst the current candidates, so he should be confirmed as the new(-ish) Test keeper when the India Test squad is announced – quite a turnaround, since I had previously hoped that his dropping would be permanent.

But who should be taken as the reserve?

Ideally it would be James Foster, who has overtaken Read as the best technical keeper on the circuit, but the Test leg of the tour is only one three-dayer and two Tests as against seven(!) ODIs, so it may be more sensible to take the like-for-like Phil Mustard.

Opinions, anyone?

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