September 20, 2009

The keeper who could be KP

Jeremy James
Somerset's wicketkeeper is a South African import who Marcus Trescothick thinks is the real deal

Selecting a wicketkeeper was once a straightforward affair. The best technician was chosen, regardless of whether or not he could score runs, for cricket was an art for individuals of specialist talents. It has metamorphosed, partly as a result of the amount of one-day competitions and fewer overs bowled by spinners, into a game in which run-making is seen as of equal importance. The very role, then, for Craig Kieswetter.

Kieswetter, the son of an Afrikaner father and Scottish mother, qualifies to play for England next February. There is little doubting that he will do so - and soon. Marcus Trescothick, who will be his captain next year and who is not a man given to superlatives, compares his batting to that of Kevin Pietersen for strokeplay born of hard pitches in the southern hemisphere, and there can be no higher praise.

James Whitaker, an England selector, watched Kieswetter at Taunton earlier this month. There is work to be done on his wicketkeeping, which is why Somerset are planning to ask Alec Stewart, essentially another batsman-keeper, to give him some tuition. And James Foster was generous with his time earlier this summer.

To score 1000 runs for the first time, as Kieswetter has done at the age of 21 this season, is a laudable achievement and to have dropped a straightforward chance given by Daryl Mitchell, who had made 28 at the time, in the last first-class match of the season at Taunton, could be put down to tiredness. Or, then again, to not being ready to play international cricket. When he was eventually out, Mitchell had made 298.

What happens if South Africa seek him as the successor to Mark Boucher? "I have no interest in that," said Kieswetter. "For the first 18 years of my life I was chosen by my folks to live in South Africa and when I turned 18 I decided I wanted to live here and make my career here - just for the opportunity and fairness of opportunity compared to what is happening in South Africa. I love living in Somerset and playing for them. I hope I can be selected for England somewhere along the line."

Kieswetter does possess that ideal qualification for a Somerset cricketer in that he was educated at Millfield. Only for a year, but the headmaster and Richard Ellison, the former England allrounder and master at the school, chose wisely in bringing him over from South Africa. County cricket was a seamless progression and his coach, Andy Hurry, is but one close observer who thinks international selection will shortly follow.

In fact Hurry puts this at a year "at a conservative estimate". Boys growing up in South Africa often possess a maturity and self-confidence beyond that of their English contemporaries and Kieswetter is as ambitious to make a name for himself in his adopted country as, well, Pietersen was. There is a difference, he stresses, between his position and that of Kolpak players from the Republic, some of whom, he says, come for the money. "I realise my accent does not qualify me to play for England, but I feel English and England offered the fairest opportunity.

"I am not angry about the system there, but I was disappointed at the way I was handled. Western Province, for whom I played at junior levels from 13 to 18, did not tell me why they felt I should go and play club cricket and come back to them two or three years later"

"South Africans say they want players to stay in the country and fight for their places. I am not angry about the system there, but I was disappointed at the way I was handled. Western Province, for whom I played at junior levels from 13 to 18, did not tell me why they felt I should go and play club cricket and come back to them two or three years later. It could have been because they preferred to give opportunities to players of colour. I did not tell them I was going to leave but said I was going to England for my education.

Keeping is not a role that has come easy to him. "Wicketkeepers are all nuts with smelly kit. Who wants to stand behind the stumps all day and catch 1000 throws and talk and run around?" he asks. "I was never big on shouting and making a lot of noise but Justin Langer, my captain, and Andy Hurry want me to keep the momentum and the over-rate going. I am slowly learning what my game is and I'm looking to try various things to see what makes me a better player. Justin has suggested kick-boxing and martial arts and I am seeking advice from dieticians and am keen to go to the spin clinic in India to further my performances."

Hurry emphasises the importance of working on his fitness. "The ECB is very keen on that now. As a wicketkeeper, he is catching the ball better and more cleanly. He needs to make sure he is technically so sound that he scores runs consistently. Craig is very South African in that he likes to hit the ball behind square and we worked on him punching the ball back down the ground and on his pulling. He needs to score lots of big hundreds so the selectors can't ignore him."

Nor will they, according to Trescothick. "I spoke to Duncan Fletcher when Somerset played Hampshire, and he was really impressed with how he batted and reined himself in when we lost an early wicket. Batting-wise he is fantastic. I see little things that I see in KP. The odd time he flicks the ball or picks it up over the leg side, or the way he can smack it out of the park. Not many of us can hit it like KP, and he breaks a lot of bats, like him. He just has a natural talent with fast hands and fast wrists."