Stumped for an answer
"Wicketkeepers," wrote Ray Robinson, "are like office-boys in at least one way - few people take notice of them until something gets in a mess, a folder or a chance is lost, an ink pot or a catch spilt, a mail or a stumping missed." Robinson came from Australia, where Adam Gilchrist would lend the office-boy phenomenon a seminal twist half a century later: these days keepers have to perform like an extension of the top six as well as be ballerinas behind the stumps. And nowhere is this dual imperative more obsessively applied than in England, where the selectors have picked an average of a frontline keeper a year since 2001 as they seek a permanent replacement for the ever more fabled Alec Stewart. If, for the time being, Tim Ambrose has wedged his gloves in the revolving door, it is a door that only ever seems a bungled catch, a fluffed stumping or a few single-figure scores away from moving once more.
Yes, times have changed since the days when Ranjitsinhji could write in his Jubilee Book of Cricket without too much fear of contradiction that "one thing is quite certain - it pays to select the best wicketkeeper quite irrespective of his batting ability". Back in Ranji's day it was not unheard of for a keeper to bat at No. 11. Now he is in trouble if he does not average 35. And, as Matt Prior discovered, he may be in trouble even if he averages 40: since none of the 20 regular candidates on the county circuit averages that many over a first-class career - Prior and Hampshire's Nic Pothas come closest - the decision to drop him after the tour of Sri Lanka struck some as harsh. Yet that is the fate of the 21st-century gloveman. "Since Stewart and Gilchrist came on the scene, the benchmark has changed," says Jon Batty of Surrey. "You have to score runs as well as take catches. The game can never be the same again and those two have accelerated its evolution."
In fact, English cricket has been mulling over the cultured keeper v batsman-with-gauntlets debate for longer than that. When Len Hutton chose his World XI in his 1956 book Just My Story he went for Les Ames ahead of Godfrey Evans "because of his superior batting", despite the fact that "as a wicketkeeper Les Ames was safe without being brilliant in the Godfrey Evans manner". Two years earlier Jim Parks had embarked on a 46-Test career that he admits was based primarily on his ability in front of the stumps. And there is plenty of sympathy for Jack Russell in the autobiography of Alec Stewart, Russell's replacement whenever England desperately needed to win a Test, which in the 1990s was quite often. "I felt so sorry for Jack," wrote Stewart after Russell was rewarded for an electric leg-side stumping to dismiss Dean Jones off Gladstone Small in 1990-91 by being left out of the next Test at Adelaide. "I did have doubts about taking over from such a wonderful performer."
|Keeper||Tests||Byes Conceded||Runs cost in missed chances||Avge runs cost per Test||Batting average||Net figure|
On a larger scale the doubts have intensified: as the search for a new Stewart threatens to rival the hunt for a new Botham, a whole generation of English keepers has felt the selectorial pinch. "Since he retired the spotlight has been magnified on us," says Essex's James Foster, who stepped in briefly when Stewart opted out of the India tour in 2001-02 but has not added to his seven Test caps since December 2002. "Everyone has expected an easy replacement but that was never going to be the case. He was a wonderful player."
Even though Stewart's Test average while playing as a keeper was a fraction under 35, compared with more than 46 as a batsman only, his impact - to say nothing of Gilchrist, Andy Flower, Kumar Sangakkara, Mark Boucher, Brendon McCullum and Mahendra Singh Dhoni - is clear: no keeper in England currently has a lower first-class average than Phil Mustard's 25.97. To put that in context: even in the summer of 1990, one of the most run-laden seasons in English history, seven of the regular county keepers fell short of Mustard's stat. Glamorgan's Colin Metson, so gifted behind the stumps, averaged 13 that year, which these days would be a dropping offence; only eight keepers averaged over 30. As the table at the end of this article shows, Mustard is one of only four keepers on the circuit today who averages below 30.
So has the post-Stewart hangover created a circuit of batsmen/keepers rather than keeper/batsmen, one in which an inevitable repercussion is the kind of behind-the-stumps uncertainty that cost Prior his place? Chris Read, widely regarded as the best out-and-out keeper in England at the moment, thinks the "standard of glovework isn't as high as when I first started [in 1998]". Parks, who believes Ambrose deserves his crack at international cricket, says the lack of quality offspinners has made the modern keeper less adept at standing up. "In all my Tests we generally had two offspinners - from David Allen, Fred Titmus, Ray Illingworth and John Mortimore - but I've noticed keepers recently taking two movements to get the ball back to the stumps, so they miss stumping chances. They take a pace back as they take the ball. I was always taught you work in a half-circle around the stumps."
Keith Piper, once Warwickshire's keeper and now their 2nd XI coach, has a different view. "I think the next generation will be more in the Metson/Piper/Russell mould," he says, tacitly acknowledging his own batting average of a smidgen under 20. "These things go in cycles, like fast bowlers. There are a lot of keepers coming through now in the 16-18 age bracket who are more keeper/batsmen than the other way round. Ben Brown at Sussex is very talented and so is Richard Johnson at Warwickshire. I think he'll play for England one day and I'm not just saying that because I'm involved with the club."
If Johnson does one day play for England, one only hopes he gets an extended run, because the selectorial chopping and changing has hardly bred confidence among the current crop. Though Geraint Jones was given 31 successive Tests between 2003-04 and 2006, most of that time was spent in the spotlight mentioned by Foster, and other stints have been much shorter: to the disgust of Rod Marsh, Jones replaced Read in the Caribbean in 2003-04 after Read had been given the job for eight games; Jones then lost the gloves to Read for two Tests against Pakistan in 2006, reclaimed them for the first three Tests in Australia, only to lose them at Melbourne and Sydney. One of Peter Moores' first acts as England coach was to pass them straight to Prior, who was duly dropped ten Tests later for his former Sussex team-mate Ambrose. And we have not even mentioned the one-day roles played by Paul Nixon, Mustard, and during the World Twenty20 a year ago, Vikram Solanki.
"The selectors are looking for something and they haven't necessarily found it," says Read, whose 15-Test career has been divided into four chunks spanning almost eight years. "The press have picked up on that and it's become a bit of a vicious circle. The confusing thing from the outside is that it isn't obvious what the selectors are actually looking for. What do they want? Do they want someone who averages 40-plus and smashes it around or someone to take all the catches? I appreciate there's a middle ground but where do their priorities lie? I think the message has become blurred."
The difficulty of quantifying a wicketkeeper's contribution to the team effort has not helped. Yet the table above shows it is possible. If you subtract from a wicketkeeper's Test average the number of byes he concedes per game as well as runs cost per match in dropped catches and missed stumpings, it emerges that Read - who averaged a negligible three runs in errors per Test - has the best net contribution (18.21) of any of Stewart's potential replacements. Prior, not helped by dropping Mahela Jayawardene twice on his way to 213 in Galle last December, the match that finally did for him, has a negative overall contribution of 22.56 per game. Of course, the extent to which a batsman cashes in on a reprieve may be the fault of the bowlers as well as the keeper, but the best keepers inspire their bowlers by taking most things that come their way. For all Prior's runs, there must have been a confidence-sapping suspicion, as Ryan Sidebottom may testify, that he was going to undo his good batting work with the gloves. "Bowlers want the best keeper behind the stumps, the guy who takes the half-chance to turn a match," says Piper. "Because you do win games in the field."
Read's dilemma - not helped by being what Duncan Fletcher called "a very quiet lad" - has been different from Prior's. "When I've been picked I know it's not just to keep wicket," he says. "But I haven't scored runs consistently. My record with the bat for England is pretty poor [360 Test runs at less than 19] so I can understand the times when I've been dropped. The one thing I regret, though, is that I never had an extended period to prove myself. I was always in and out of the side and the whole Ashes experience [in 2006-07] was pretty grim, to be honest. I'd had one first-class innings in four months and then I was thrown into the Melbourne Test on Boxing Day when we were already 3-0 down. I felt pretty out of my depth. If I had been given an extended run and I'd failed, I'd have put my hand up and said I wasn't good enough. But I was always filling in for two games and never got a run. It's a hard environment to come into."
He has a point, especially as keepers seem doomed to play the role of their footballing counterparts: ignored when they do their job, fingered when they make a mistake. But Batty, who was told by Moores last winter that he came close to selection for the tour of Sri Lanka, is not one for excuses. "It's difficult to say whether we're too hard on our keepers in this country," he says. "The problem is that when people have been getting the opportunity they haven't just been making the odd slip-up: there have been several mistakes. Whether they feel under pressure from the start and think they haven't got as long as batsmen or bowlers to make an impression, I don't know. Maybe they feel they're under the microscope and can't relax. But good wicketkeepers are ones who don't make mistakes. That's still the most important part of the job."
Robinson, who reckoned the wicketkeeper is "the most important of them all, the cricket field's VIP", would be purring at the sound of that, but Batty's implication is clear: the England job is still up for grabs. And anyone who noticed the little digs at Ambrose during the recent one-dayers against New Zealand - one broadsheet writer lambasted the "folly of not picking Matthew Prior" - might be persuaded to agree. "There are no stand-out candidates," says Batty. "No one's really made the position their own. Tim Ambrose has kept nicely but I still don't think it is a closed shop. There's a group of about five or six of us who could do it."
Read, who says he is "not prepared to give up just yet" on England, argues that it's "hard to measure people's success because no one's really had enough time", although that modestly ignores his own strong showing in Table 1. For that reason he feels sorry for Prior, who he says is the best batsmen of all the county keepers but who "needs more belief in his own [wicketkeeping] technique". Asked to nominate the two best glovemen in England - without choosing himself - he says: "There are two fellas: James Foster, whose improvement since he was first picked in 2001 has been fantastic; and Ben Scott at Middlesex is a very natural keeper, especially up to the stumps. But he's got his own little battle with David Nash."
Table 2, which uses batting averages and number of dismissals per match to determine a keeper's overall standing in the county game, actually places Foster 10th and Scott 16th. Joint-top are Pothas, who turns 35 in November - not that age prevented a late call-up for Nixon - and Steven Davies, Worcestershire's 22-year-old England academician. But there is a suspicion that his eggs are currently placed in the batting basket. "Personally, he doesn't float my boat," says Piper. "He gets his runs, but he's not up there with the best as a keeper." One experienced county keeper, asked what he thinks of Davies, replies: "Not a lot." Batty says: "There aren't an awful lot of youngsters around."
Of course the table tells only half the story. Batty points out that he has spent the last few seasons opening for Surrey and averaging in the low 40s. The overall positions of Prior (ninth) and Ambrose (13th) are affected by the fact that they had to share the gloves for several seasons at Sussex, thus lowering their average dismissals-per-match figure. Niall O'Brien at Northants, Craig Kieswetter at Somerset, and Steve Snell at Gloucestershire have not been in the game for long enough, while Davies's stats may be helped by pouching all those outside edges at the traditionally seam-friendly New Road.
The truth is that the perfect keeper does not exist: even Gilchrist dropped catches. "People forget that wicketkeepers are human and miss chances," says Foster. And the nature of the post-Stewart debate is that the focus is often on the new incumbent's weaker suit anyway. Perhaps the perfect England keeper would have Prior's batting ability, Read's glovework, Nixon's attitude, Batty's fitness, Foster's capacity for improvement, with a bit of Mustard's pinch-hitting and Ambrose's unflappability thrown in. But until that magical hybrid arrives, we are left with a reminder from Ray Robinson that not a lot changes. "All the mistakes of the wicketkeeper," he wrote, "and some not perpetrated by him, are mercilessly chalked up against him by the recording angels of the press box." Expect the debate to run and run.
|Position||Name (County)||Career first-class avg (position)||Dismissals/f-c match (pos)||Overall total|
|1=||Nic Pothas (Hampshire)||39.69 (1)||3.06 (7=)||8|
|1=||Steven Davies (Worcestershire)||35.68 (4)||3.13 (4)||8|
|3||Niall O'Brien (Northamptonshire)||33.82 (7)||3.09 (5)||12|
|4||Craig Kieswetter (Somerset)||31.72 (13)||3.33 (2)||15|
|5||Chris Read (Nottinghamshire)||33.46 (10)||3.08 (6)||16|
|6=||Paul Nixon (Leicestershire)||34.19 (6)||2.87 (11)||17|
|6=||Jon Batty (Surrey)||33.71 (8)||2.96 (9)||17|
|8||Geraint Jones (Kent)||30.48 (15)||3.23 (3)||18|
|9||Matt Prior (Sussex)||39.60 (2)||2.47 (17)||19|
|10=||James Foster (Essex)||33.55 (9)||2.86 (12)||21|
|10=||Phil Mustard (Durham)||25.97 (20)||3.48 (1)||21|
|12||David Nash (Middlesex)||36.39 (3)||2.25 (19)||22|
|13||Tim Ambrose (Warwickshire)||35.64 (5)||2.32 (18)||23|
|14||James Pipe (Derbyshire)||27.37 (17)||3.06 (7=)||24|
|15||Luke Sutton (Lancashire)||32.45 (12)||2.48 (16)||28|
|16=||Gerald Brophy (Yorkshire)||31.39 (14)||2.65 (15)||29|
|16=||Ben Scott (Middlesex)||26.63 (19)||2.94 (10)||29|
|18||Tony Frost (Warwickshire)||30.39 (16)||2.68 (14)||30|
|19=||Mark Wallace (Glamorgan)||27.27 (18)||2.78 (13)||31|
|19=||Steve Snell (Gloucestershire)||33.27 (11)||2.00 (20)||31|
Lawrence Booth writes on cricket for the Guardian. His book, Cricket, Lovely Cricket? An Addict's Guide to the World's Most Exasperating Game, is published in August. This article was first published in the August 2008 issue of the Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here