England's wicketkeeping conundrum August 12, 2004

Iron fists or velvet gloves?

Andrew Miller on England's wicketkeeping conundrum, and its impact on the coaches

Rod Marsh - marginalised? © Getty Images

Two summers ago, Wisden Cricket Monthly led its July issue with a (then) rare interview with that well-loved recluse and eccentric, Jack Russell, who also happened to be the best wicketkeeper in the country. At the age of 39, Russell was enjoying his second wind behind the stumps, anchoring Gloucestershire to all manner of one-day titles, and making the purists purr in the process.

And yet, Russell was an angry man. Under the headline "England ignores", he bemoaned the lack of an English wicketkeeping coach, and looked on in barely concealed frustration as a succession of young English talents - including that current cause celebre, Chris Read - were picked up, toyed with, and cast aside. "It's just so unprofessional," he seethed, "that in a multi-million pound business ... they won't spend a few thousand on a keeping coach."

It turns out, however, that England were merely waiting for the right man to become available. Barely six weeks after he hung up his gloves for the last time, Russell has been called upon by Duncan Fletcher to give a masterclass to the latest and, so far, best-received of his heirs - Geraint Jones.

As wicketkeepers go, Russell and Jones aren't exactly cast from the same mould. Russell, the ultimate perfectionist, used to keep a daily log of his Test performances, including every fumble, but gave it up because it was starting to depress him. Jones, on the other hand, would be well advised to avoid a similar course of action - his batting has been a joy to behold, especially his partnerships with Andrew Flintoff, but behind the stumps, he has already let 89 byes slip through his grasp in 11 innings. Were he to jot them all down, he would be on course to have rewritten Paradise Lost by the time the Ashes come around next summer.

In fact, Jones currently has more in common with another, strangely marginalised, former international wicketkeeper in the England set-up. When Rod Marsh made his debut for Australia in the 1970-71 Ashes, he was dubbed "Iron Gloves" because of the glut of clangers he dropped in his early matches. But after the fifth Test at Melbourne, where he came within a declaration of becoming the first Aussie keeper to score a Test century against England, his neat and tidy predecessor was quickly forgotten. For the record, that man was Brian Taber, who pouched seven catches and a stumping in his debut Test, but managed a top score of just 48 in 16 matches.

Three decades on, and history is repeating itself on the other side of the world, which just goes to show how old-fashioned this stumpers versus stoppers debate is. But the debating is unlikely to end there. Much to his chagrin, Marsh was not consulted about Jones's selection for the Antigua Test, and judging by the perceived animosity between him and Fletcher, Russell's appointment is unlikely to have pleased Marsh greatly either.

Duncan Fletcher - England's supreme commander © Getty Images

Russell himself gave a curious hint that those battle-lines are still drawn. While lavishing Jones with praise for his attitude and commitment, he couldn't quite find the same words for Read. "Chris is good, but Geraint is easier to work with," was his eventual verdict, "because he is so keen to get better." This hardly sounds like the same man whose plight in the Caribbean drew such widespread sympathy, and it certainly doesn't match Marsh's ringing endorsements either.

All through the summer, The Guardian has run a spoof column, in which Marsh and Fletcher bicker like fishwives over the most trivial of matters. Whether it's art imitating life, or just a bit of fun, Marsh might be beginning to suspect that he's been pushed to the margins.

As the academy's sweaty-toothed drill sergeant, Marsh has done English cricket a huge service by knocking into shape a succession of raw talents, and several members of the current England set-up - including Andrew Strauss, Andrew Flintoff, and of course (bubbling under) that man Read - have benefited from the hothouse environment he has created.

But at the same time, the current England side is very much the team that Duncan built - a fact that becomes more and more apparent with every new triumph (it still requires a double-take to recognise that beaming, bouncing figure at the heart of England's victory huddles). It has been Fletcher's hand-picks - men such as Marcus Trescothick, Michael Vaughan, even Ashley Giles - that have formed the spine of the current side, rather than the men from Marsh's machine. Ian Bell, another particular favourite of Marsh's, is a case in point.

Marsh and Fletcher are two proud and talented men with one ultimate goal - to put England back at the top of the Test table. Somehow, they need to maintain their lines of communication.

Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo. His English View will appear here every Thursday.