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Such is the uncertainty surrounding England's one-day wicketkeeping that a few hours before the first match of the tour few knew Jos Buttler had been favoured to Jonny Bairstow
February 11, 2013
It says much for the uncertainty surrounding the position of England's limited-overs wicketkeeper that, only an hour or two ahead of the first warm-up game on their tour of New Zealand, even members of the team were unsure who was going to keep wicket.
Certainly Jonny Bairstow thought he had a good chance of winning back the gloves, so it came as a disappointment when Ashley Giles, England's new limited-overs coach, told him otherwise. Instead Jos Buttler retained the position he had won in India just before Christmas and is expected to keep throughout the T20 series.
Some think Buttler will continue as keeper in the ODI side; others think Bairstow will return. Few would be surprised if Matt Prior was recalled ahead of the Champions Trophy. The position could hardly be more open.
Buttler and Bairstow, 22 and 23 respectively, could spend much of the next decade competing for the gloves in various England sides. Bairstow is the more experienced but Buttler's batting is currently regarded as most indispensible and his wicketkeeping is seen by some as having more potential.
While it is highly unusual for a man who is not first choice with his county to keep wicket for England - Craig Kieswetter finished the 2012 season, at least, as Somerset's first choice - Bruce French, England's wicketkeeping coach, speaks highly of Buttler's natural hands while few could fail to be impressed by his explosive batting in the dying overs of limited-overs games.
It was that skill that won him selection ahead of Bairstow in India. Armed with surprising strength, remarkable bat speed and a broad range of strokes, Buttler is quickly developing into one of the most devastating finishers in world cricket and seems more likely than most to ensure the plundering of 50 or so from the final four or five overs.
While questions remain about his keeping and his ability to play longer innings when required, England seem to think he can learn on the job and may well be prepared to suffer the odd inevitable setback as they look to build towards the 2015 World Cup. Buttler is seen as one for the future.
Much the same could be said about Ben Foakes. The 19-year-old was fast-tracked into the England Lions squad as the only specialist keeper on the limited-overs tour of Australia despite having never scored a List A run, but is clearly a player of immense potential who might be considered as worthy of similar long-term investment as Buttler.
None of which bodes particularly well for Bairstow. Indeed, even at such a young age, he might be emerging as the nearly man of England cricket. Unfortunate to be forced out of the side for the first Test in India by the return of Kevin Pietersen despite an excellent end to the South Africa series, Bairstow then slipped behind Joe Root due to the latter's superiority against spin. Unable to return to India for the ODI section of the tour due to family illness, he was subsequently unable to capitalise on Kieswetter's loss of form and saw Buttler take advantage and now finds himself on the fringes in all three formats.
Bairstow will continue to challenge for selection even if it is as a specialist batsman but, unless he takes the gloves, he is unlikely to be considered a first-choice selection in either Test or ODI cricket.
He might take some encouragement from history. He will know that county cricket is littered with keepers - the likes of Prior, Kieswetter, Chris Read, James Foster, Phil Mustard and Tim Ambrose - who have been used and discarded by the England selectors and he will know that his chance may come again.
"There's no easy way into the side at all," Bairstow said as he reflected on his position ahead of the second T20I in New Zealand. "Everyone is jostling for positions, whether that be batting, bowling, in the spin department or wicketkeeping. We know the strength and depth we've got within the squad is a very good place to be.
"Jos has got the gloves at the moment and I'll keep working hard, like I have been every training session to do my best if the opportunity arises to step in and try to take that chance. I'm working hard on my keeping every day."
Such competition for places is, in many ways, good for England. It banishes complacency and obliges players to continuously seek personal improvement. It could help the team and the individual players to new levels of excellence.
But it also takes careful management. Not only can a battle for selection cause resentment in the dressing room - players often talk of relishing the competition but they would not be human if they did not, in part at least, also detest it - it can also encourage fickle selections.
At some stage, England need to stick with one option and allow them to bed into the side over a considerable period of time rather than continuing to look five years into the future. Buttler is the latest with an opportunity to win a long-term opportunity, but experience would suggest little is permanent in the world of a England wicketkeeper.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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