County news March 5, 2013

Wheater denies wicketkeeping guarantee

Adam Wheater, who last week bought out his contract with Essex in order to join Hampshire with immediate effect, has said he received no guarantees of a first-team place as wicketkeeper at West End, despite the claim by his former coach, Paul Grayson, that this was the reason behind his decision to move counties.

"I think Paul was trying to cover his own back in saying that," Wheater said during a press conference before flying to Barbados with his new team-mates for a pre-season tour. "I am on a two-year contract and have been given no assurances." He will compete with Michael Bates for the gloves at Hampshire.

In Essex's press release, Grayson was quoted as saying Wheater was their "third-choice keeper", behind James Foster and Ben Foakes, and that "Hampshire have given him assurances that he will be their first-choice at the club." Nigel Hilliard, the Essex chairman, supported Grayson, however. "I have no reason to believe Paul was lying," he said.

Although Hampshire allegedly did not make a formal approach to Essex and had previously attempted to tempt James Foster to join them, Hilliard did not want to take issue with them. "All sorts of approaches are made for players and we would not want to stand in the way of a player who was keen to leave," he said.

Wheater, 23, saw little prospect of keeping wicket regularly for Essex given that he expects Foster, the club captain, to play on for several more years. "The attraction for me in joining Hampshire is that they have a young side who are going in the right direction and are not too far from my family in Epping," he said. "I have been looking at places to buy round Southampton but haven't found anywhere yet."

He said "three or four" other counties had been interested in signing him, but he had not had any serious discussions with any of them. He has joined Hampshire, he emphasised, to become a wicketkeeper-batsman. "I would have become more frustrated at Essex if James Foster had not been such an unbelievably good wicketkeeper. I talked to him before leaving - we were born in the same hospital and went to the same school - but he could not be seen to be advising me to go." Wheater would not divulge the payment he had to make to Essex to buy out his remaining year's contract.

There is no doubting Wheater's ability with the bat - he made 2,463 runs for Essex at 39.09, a significantly higher average than Bates has mustered - and his wicketkeeping can only improve under the tutelage of Bobby Parks, but his signing is nonetheless a controversial one. Hampshire pride themselves on the young cricketers they have brought on over the past few years, one of whom is Bates, who has kept wicket to Danny Briggs' left arm spin since they were ten years old.

Bates, 22, signed a two-year contract with Hampshire in the autumn and is arguably the most talented young wicketkeeper in the country. His batting is improving if not yet consistent - he made his maiden first-class century last season - and the acquisition of Wheater will do little for his self-belief or the confidence of academy cricketers who will feel a natural progression to the first team is constantly under threat. Nor will it please the members, who doubtless would prefer to see the club develop and promote their own players rather than sign up outsiders, as in football.

Tellingly - and modestly - Wheater said that Bates remains the better wicketkeeper. "We know each other from playing against each other at regional level," he said. "I have benefited from playing for Essex as a batsman, and I would be happy to play for Hampshire as a specialist batter, but my trade is a wicketkeeper-batsman," he said.

It could yet be the case that Hampshire will alternate between the two for first-class and limited-overs cricket. One particular match which would have heightened their interest in acquiring Wheater occurred at Chelmsford last year when Essex, needing 360 to win, slumped to 222 for 7 before his innings of 98 brought them to within two runs of victory.

Hilliard, who believes that Foster is the best wicketkeeper in the world, let alone the country, feels the specialist stumper will return to prominence in due course, regardless of whether or not he can bat. Keith Fletcher, the great sage of Essex cricket, is not so sure. "Neil Smith, who played in our first championship-winning side, would not play now," he said. "David East might struggle to get in, even thought he played some important innings."

And, he added - alarmingly for the likes of Bates - "even the days of Bob Taylor have gone."