April 9, 2015

The lost wicketkeeper

He was one of the most admired young keepers in the country but Michael Bates is currently without a county and hoping for one more chance

Michael Bates' skills behind the stumps won him many admirers - but he is without a county © Getty Images

It is tempting to characterise Michael Bates as the last wicketkeeper. His old-fashioned skills - fast, soft hands, jack-in-the-box agility, unflagging concentration - are not so valued in an age where keepers are judged as much on their contributions with the bat as the gloves. If they drop a few, well, according to the market, that's a price worth paying as long as there are runs in the bank.

At the moment Bates is, more accurately, a lost wicketkeeper. Not yet lost to the game but definitely searching for his place. Despite a reputation that effectively made him a cult player on the county circuit in his early twenties, Bates was let go at the end of last season by Hampshire, where he had been since the age of nine. Hampshire were crowned Division Two champions but Bates lost on points in his own personal bout with Adam Wheater, brought in from Essex as competition in 2013.

He admits it was a difficult decision to take. While his former team-mates are preparing for the new season, he has been "trying to keep busy and do my own thing". For the first time in five years, he is not involved, although that doesn't mean any less of a focus on cricket. He will play with Wiltshire in minor counties, as well as club cricket with Oxford, while waiting and hoping for another opportunity.

Bates knew that the clock began ticking with Wheater's arrival but, having helped Hampshire to a T20 and List A double the season before, he felt he deserved more time to establish himself. Despite his glovework quickly winning him a following after he succeeded Nic Pothas, 2012 remains Bates' one full campaign.

"The season that I played every single game was a very successful one, I feel like I had a huge part to play in that. And I do feel fairly hard done by that straight after that season, they signed Wheater," he says. "I thought that was quite unfair, but I guess professional sport can be ruthless. But in this instance I do feel hard done by."

Although the arrival of Wheater caused some disgruntlement among the members, Hampshire's motives were clear. Like Bates, he was an England U-19 wicketkeeper; unlike Bates, he averages close to 40 in first-class cricket.

As a batsman, Bates knew he had work to do but he believes he could have had more support. His keeping has been compared to that of Chris Read and James Foster, the premier practitioners of their time and now venerable contributors with the bat as well, for Nottinghamshire and Essex respectively. It is interesting to look at their careers and compare numbers.

Bates was released by Hampshire shortly before his 24th birthday, with one first-class hundred to his name and an average of 21.20. When Foster and Read were at the same age, more than a decade ago, they each had two hundreds and averages in the mid-20s; not only were they highly regarded at county level, both had also been capped by England. The contrast is a poignant one for Bates.

"I'm sure at my age, with the bat, they were probably where I am now," he says. "They're lucky enough to have had the opportunity, the backing to gain that experience, to learn about batting and now look where they are - both captaining their respective teams, leading from the front. I feel like, if I'm given the opportunity, there's no reason why I can't achieve exactly the same.

"I would have liked at least to have a couple more seasons with the gloves, to be the No. 1 keeper at Hampshire. That was the first season that I'd had completely under my belt. I learnt a great deal, there were many ups and downs and having to play every game as a youngster was a pretty tough ask. But I'm sure I would have gone from strength to strength. If I'd had a couple more seasons, I do think I would be away, there wouldn't have been any questions. In my opinion, if I did have an extended opportunity I would have taken it and the rest would have been history."

Not only does Bates want to prove the point for his own sake, but also to justify the faith of those who feel Hampshire got their priorities wrong. Bates won't quite go so far as describing himself as the best wicketkeeper of his age group but his most ardent supporters would put him in the top one.

"It's been very humbling, getting feedback from fans, on the various social media sites - the stuff that people write is very complimentary. Unfortunately that doesn't change the situation I'm now in, I haven't got a team, would love one and would love to be able to prove doubters wrong but also back up what all these people out there are saying about me, all these complimentary things. I would love to be back on that pitch, putting it all into practice and showing them what I can do."

Adam Gilchrist had already begun to change perceptions around the time that Read and Foster were being picked by England primarily for their keeping - both would eventually lose out to Matt Prior, a punishing batsman who managed to overcome his flaws with the gloves - and T20 probably accelerated the shift. Nevertheless, in a game of fine margins, a specialist behind the stumps can still play a decisive role.

Bates' greatest moment in his career so far came when he ensured Hampshire would win the 2012 CB40 trophy on fewer wickets lost by standing up to Kabir Ali's medium pace with the scores tied and taking a low full toss to deny Warwickshire the single they needed. "I personally don't think there's any coincidence in the fact that we won two limited-overs trophies that year and I was an integral part of that behind the stumps," Bates says.

"People have said to me, if you had kept an era or two before, you potentially could have been playing for England. I still consider it to be an art in itself and hopefully that doesn't get lost, hopefully people eventually realise the value of a keeper. They're always going to have to bat, that's the fact of it, in the modern day that's never going to change. But I stand by the fact it is a skill in itself and it has a huge part to play in any form of cricket."

Bates, of course, is hoping that he still has a part to play in the game. He trained alongside Foster at Essex over the winter but has otherwise worked in a bar, a sports shop, and interned at a sponsorship company. He is not sure what the future holds but is intent on "giving cricket one last go". Bates is a wicketkeeper out of time - and time is running out.

Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick