Australia's wicketkeeper dilemma
Far more so than we sometimes admit, wicketkeepers are the barometers of Test sides. England's recent dip in fortunes coincided entirely with the demotion of Matt Prior from English Test player of the year to Ashes non-starter. His and England's form was so bad that they threw in a guy who wasn't really a keeper in attempt to get out of their rut.
At the same time Australia's renaissance was inarguably strengthened by the steady hands (well, pretty much) and level head of Brad Haddin, who scored the counter-attacking runs often needed when Australia were five down for nothing very substantial. Haddin was so good he allowed the Aussies to carry an underperforming batsman (George Bailey) for the entire summer.
This might just be a personal view of mine, and maybe flavoured by the fact that I grew to love the game in the stable, successful eras with Ian Healy and Adam Gilchrist behind the stumps, but no player other than the captain embodies the strengths or weaknesses of Australian cricket as much as the national wicketkeeper does. When Australia have been skittish and unreliable, so too has been their custodian. It's most certainly a more important position to fill than the vice-captaincy, and in fact, often keepers have been presented as the most glaringly obvious men for that role too.
Fast bowlers come and go. They're not irreplaceable when they're good and it's true that Australia's recent successes have been as much about Mitchell Johnson as anyone, but bowlers are the muscle. Batsmen are the bedrock. A team is really not a team at all without batsmen, but keepers are appropriately named because they're the ones that keep it all together. When Brad Haddin lost his bundle a few years back, his fortunes mirrored an Australia losing their way. When he returned at the request of his overworked captain, Michael Clarke, he delivered and he led. He was dependable, he refused to be pushed around and he showed that he was a winner. That's a hole a lot bigger to fill than will be realised until he's gone for good.
Of the contenders to replace him, Tim Paine and Matthew Wade appear the most obvious at first glance. Wade was the man deposed by Haddin on account of Clarke's desire for leadership assistance and cleaner glovework. Whether he did enough to establish his credentials in either of those fields during his exile period at Shield level last season is debatable. As Victoria captain he was suspended for pitch-tampering and otherwise could often be seen lipping off in frustration. He can seriously bat, though and he's got guts, Wade. He's all guts. The actual wicketkeeping part is what's generally acknowledged as the deal-breaker.
Paine is possibly aided by the ascent of Rodney Marsh into the role of chairman of selectors in the wake of John Inverarity standing down. Marsh has previously expressed his liking for Paine. Still, many would rightly point to the fact that the guy has scored one first-class century in his career. That's a paltry return for a batsman of his capabilities and begs some uncomfortable questions, as does his decision to stand down from the Tasmania vice-captaincy to focus on his own game. Hopefully that decision reaps individual rewards because 473 runs at 31.53 in the Shield summer just gone was solid but not spectacular with the bat.
Elsewhere Sam Whiteman has appeared the most genuinely exciting prospect coming through from the generation below. He's young, eager, has benefited from the responsibility placed on him by Western Australia coach Justin Langer, and his batting can be destructive when he's on song. Six hundred and eighty-seven runs at 45.80 placed him sixth on the Sheffield Shield run-scorers table in 2013-14 and it's a result that should put his name forward.
Another interesting name on the Shield run chart is that of Ryan Carters, who made 861 runs at 53.81 for NSW but couldn't prise the keeping gloves away from the equally talented Peter Nevill, himself once called upon by the national side to provide injury cover. Nevill's 472 runs at a shade under 40 included an unbeaten century and two fifties, and he's a player of undoubted quality.
In South Australia, Tim Ludeman might be encouraged by Marsh's insistence this week that he'd be willing to break, or reset, the mould and pick the most technically proficient wicketkeeper. With a first- class batting average of 25, Ludeman needs to be sharp with his glovework. Up north, Queensland's Chris Hartley remains the country's most unsung and unfairly ignored player of the current generation. Almost 32 years old, he has been a rock for over a decade, and seven first-class centuries amply illustrate his batting talent.
You can crunch the numbers all you like but one thing is certain: Marsh will have the strongest say in the selection of Haddin's eventual replacement. From his own career Marsh would be keenly aware of the role that a keeper has in influencing the personality and spirit of the side. It's a batting judgement and a keeping judgement, but it's also a character judgement and a statement about what Australia want to be as a Test side.
Thirty-two men have kept wicket for Australia at Test level. That's 12 fewer than have captained the country in that time. Eight of those keepers spent a decade as their country's go-to gloveman. But for injury and his brief replacement by Wade, Haddin has been at it for seven years at Test level. The player who replaces him will need to be every bit as resilient, because a team takes shape around that perma-stooped figure behind the stumps.
Russell Jackson is a cricket lover who blogs about sports in the present and nostalgic tense for the Guardian and Wasted Afternoons. @rustyjacko