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?

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • testli5504537 on September 11, 2008, 23:19 GMT

    Fair enough Mike. It's rare that you can have two keepers of such skill during a period such as that (I recall Taylor was older than Knott??).

    But to be honest, I never saw a lot of footage of Taylor and saw plenty of footage of Knott, and some of the stuff he did was incredible.

  • testli5504537 on September 11, 2008, 16:14 GMT

    Prior's footwork standing back has improved considerably. When he first played for england, he was flat footed and left himself with hardly any potential to move sideways, as his weight was mainly distributed through his knees, not his feet. As a result he was moving too late, and resorting to ill timed dives to take catches where his poor glovework was exposed. Whilst he seems to have corrected the issue with his feet, his glovework could be found wanting on the slow low turning wickets to be encountered in India and the Caribbean. I think he will improve with a longer run in the team. He is the best batsman amongst the keepers on the county circuit, and could probably play as a batsmen alone. However I still feel Geraint Jones was the best over all package. For some unknown reason, he has been the victim for the press' grievances with Duncan Fletcher. His glovework has improved very much and he is a class batsmen, capable of scoring runs against high quality attacks.

  • testli5504537 on September 9, 2008, 21:16 GMT

    Brendanvio - that Knott was one of the best we've ever had is not in doubt. Neither is it in doubt that Asafa Powell is an extremely fast 100m runner. And just as Usain Bolt is slightly better even than Powell, so Bob Taylor was slightly better than Knott.

    By picking Knott, England sacrificed about 0.5% of their wicketkeeping potential in order to gain about 40% on the number seven's batting potential, a trade-off which needs no thought at all.

  • testli5504537 on September 9, 2008, 11:23 GMT

    If I am not wrong then Read played in the ICL, the rebel league. I don't think ECB is in a position to antagonize BCCI by selecting him, given their financial clout. The BCCI will not allow any ICL player to play international cricket again

  • testli5504537 on September 9, 2008, 10:42 GMT

    I am a man of kent who watched great kentish wicket keepers from les ames to alan knott but more importantly who is mike holmans? are we perhaps related because outside kent, holmans's are very few on the ground. I live in Bingley west yorkshire but was born in cranbrook(kent) can mike get in touch. The real way to check if he has holmans genes is to see whether the second finger on each hand is gradually bending in on itself. If so he has viking blood which came when they invaded kent. holmans's - the viking sort- originated in Sweden specifically stockholm because over there the name is Holm so we are Holm men! Best wishes brian holmans.

  • testli5504537 on September 9, 2008, 10:03 GMT

    I think the issue for Prior is concentrating for long periods - he did well in the ODIs, but the concentration span required is less. He should play fewer computer games, something that improved David James's concentration. He was worst during a long innings (sometimes the innings were longer following his drops, compounding his errors). I agree to some extent with your comments about Read, but many of these aspects of his game could have been improved with an extended run in the side. Ultimately, there is some suspicion that Read doesn't quite have the drive to make it as a test cricketer.

  • testli5504537 on September 9, 2008, 9:51 GMT

    Agree that Prior deserves another go in the test team though am not sure that his keeping will stand up to the rigours of 5 day matches. In the recent one day series Prior took some outstanding catches. Two in particular were spectacular efforts, genuine dives taking the ball with one hand (both right and left). My concern is that both of these catches were actually going straight down first slips throat and would have been regulation chances there. Will Matt Prior still be attempting these catches and more importantly taking them if India have batted for a day and a half for the loss of just a couple of wickets? Looking beyond how spectacular the catches were I have my doubts though perhaps I am being hyper critical? His batting is the most important part of his armoury and there is probably no doubt that England will be a harder team to beat with Prior coming in at 7.

  • testli5504537 on September 9, 2008, 8:39 GMT

    Prior has cost more runs than he has scored in test cricket. Just pick your best keeper and play Broad. So you have additional depth in batting if the keeper fails. It is only time before Prior is exposed at test level. He is good enough for the one day format.But test cricket? I am not sure

  • testli5504537 on September 9, 2008, 8:22 GMT

    Most of England keepers in recent years have one of the following batting styles: unothodox accumulators of ones and twos, limited to one great shot, or hard-hitting bludgeoners. The similarity between all these three groups – which includes read, jones, russell, ambrose, mustard and probably even knott – is that they are good for test fifties now and again, and will average around the late-20s. I saw Prior on debut, when he made a century against the West Indies, and it was clear he was not a batsman which fell into any of these categories. I personally think that he is better than Collingwood and most of the rest in the wings: without a doubt he should bat at 6 in the test team. Furthermore, Alec Stewart has said all season that his keeping has improved dramatically and from the one-dayers he seems to be right. I can’t remember Foster’s batting too well, but I recall it seemed a cut above the competitors (no pun intended), and his keeping is brilliant: he should deputise.

  • testli5504537 on September 9, 2008, 6:39 GMT

    If England play Flintoff and Broad, why do they need someone who offers more with bat than gloves?

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