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Batting predominantly at five or six and good enough to score six Test hundreds while keeping wicket, Stewart got better and better as a gloveman through a Stakhanovite application and natural athleticism. He wasn't the most naturally talented of his time but his sheer efficiency was greatly valued.
And his runs. Though his batting average was far better when he did not keep wicket (46.70 v 34.92), the difference was not enough in the minds of most selectors to justify expending a place. Stewart was a spectacular example of cricket's trend towards "multiskilling". Fast bowlers everywhere have to practise their batting with a brief to hang around in often strokeless defiance, even if the rest of us lose the will to live while watching them. But at least if they keep taking wickets, they can stay in the side. The best wicketkeeper in the country enjoys no such security. He has to bat, and bat well. This is not new: the trend has, however, become much stronger. The effect on the standards of keeping everywhere has been quietly disastrous.
Bob Taylor, the most admired wicketkeeper in the world in the 1970s and 1980s, says he would have no chance of playing for England today. "I was fortunate enough to be around when Ian Botham was at his peak, batting at six. He was such a great all-rounder that they could afford to have me at seven and play four front-line bowlers, in addition to Botham. That, to me, is the ideal balance for a side."
|The best wicketkeeper... has to bat, and bat well. This is not new: the trend has, however, become much stronger. The effect on the standards of keeping everywhere has been quietly disastrous|
But Taylor was a contemporary of Alan Knott, and his 57 Tests would have been reduced to little more than a handful but for Knott joining his generation's two great rebellions: those instigated by Kerry Packer and the South Africans. When they were competing, Knott's batting was decisive - his average for England was more than double Taylor's: 32.75 v 16.28. Both were wonderful keepers. Taylor acknowledges Knott's marvellous agility and knack of conjuring up a miraculous catch, even though he stood back too often to the medium-pacers for Taylor's purist tastes. "Wicketkeeping is about standing up, not back," he says, "because any competent catcher of the ball can do it standing back."
Once Taylor had lost his role as perennial reserve wicketkeeper on tour, his shimmering brilliance stood out, but at times he did lose his place due to the superior batting of David Bairstow and Paul Downton. And his own hero was even less fortunate.
When Taylor first played for Derbyshire in 1961, he idolised Keith Andrew of Northamptonshire. He called him "Mr Andrew" when they first met on county duty and the young protégé cherished the pair of gloves Mr Andrew sent him. "He was a master of his trade and it never occurred to me that he wasn't much of a batsman," Taylor says. "I saw him standing up to the brisk medium-pace of Brian Crump and the left-arm spin of George Tribe, who bowled all sorts, and he was an inspiration. You never heard the ball drop into Keith Andrew's hands, he was so deft and unspectacular." This view was shared by almost all Andrew's contemporaries. "Keith was a master craftsman," said Micky Stewart, the future England coach, "like a silvery, smooth, slinky shadow behind the stumps."
In 13 years of first-class cricket Keith Andrew made only three fifties and played just twice for England. Godfrey Evans's flair for the big occasion, his spring-heeled athleticism and knack of scoring vital runs meant he stayed in the England team for more than a decade until he was 38. But Andrew was widely recognised as the superior 'keeper. Taller than many of his rivals at 5ft 9in, he crouched halfway down, rather than squatting on his haunches in the approved manner. That meant he could cover a lot of ground down the leg side without resorting to the trademark Evans leap that delighted so many press photographers. Andrew accepts why Evans played 91 Tests to his two. "I'm slightly ashamed of my poor batting record. I was a fool not to work at it more. I'd be a much better batsman now, because I wouldn't get a game otherwise for my county, never mind England."
When he played his second Test at Old Trafford in 1963, nine years after the first, Andrew conceded just three byes in a total of 501. More relevantly, England lost by ten wickets. For the next Test, he was replaced by Jim Parks, a batsman who had manufactured himself into a competent performer standing back. "Jim was an excellent fielder anywhere and he could score a hundred going in at six," Andrew recalls. "I'd be lucky if I scratched together 12. No contest and no complaints from me."
So none of this is new. John Woodcock, the former Wisden editor, dates it back much further and says that England's No. 1 wicketkeeper of the 1930s, Les Ames, was not the best. He also believes this is a legitimate selection decision.
"George Duckworth was the better keeper, but Les was a wonderful allround cricketer," says Woodcock. "He was a beautiful fielder, like Stewart and Parks, and they can do the job perfectly well. If you had Warne at one end and Murali at the other, it might be different, you might want the best wicket-keeper. But Clyde Walcott wasn't a specialist keeper and he kept to Ramadhin and Valentine in 1950. It is the practical and sensible thing to do." Ames (Test batting average: 40.56) and Duckworth (14.62) toured Australasia together in both Ashes tours of the 1930s and Duckworth played just one Test out of 12 - in New Zealand, where the opposition was weak enough for Ames to be played safely as a specialist bat.
Nor is this just an English phenomenon. In Australia, the Victorian keeper Darren Berry was picked out by Steve Waugh as unlucky never to play a Test. Yet when the World Cup came, Jimmy Maher was sent as No. 2 to Adam Gilchrist. "What message does that send to the state wicketkeepers?" asked Berry sadly. And he was very scathing about some of his contemporaries elsewhere. Parthiv Patel of India is quite a good keeper, he reckons. "But he missed a chance from Ricky Ponting, who then scored a double ton. They've done the same thing in West Indies and look at some of the keepers they've come up with. They've been atrocious."
Andrew, who went on to be director of coaching at the National Cricket Association, blames the pitches rather than selectors for modern wicketkeeping standards, which he describes as "pathetic".
"The wickets are to blame, they're too benign. Two of the game's skills have been neutered - positive, attacking bowling and wicketkeeping." He acknowledges that Alec Stewart had a great pair of hands, missing little at his peak, but feels he was never fully stretched because turning wickets are a thing of the past.
Andrew's nostalgia for the days when keepers regularly stood up to the stumps strikes a chord with Jack Russell. In 1983, his first full season with Gloucestershire, he took 17 stumpings, a figure he has not matched since. But he has now begun to stand up to the medium-pacers, at the instigation of the Gloucestershire coach John Bracewell. "He told me I'd become a defensive keeper and he was right. I needed to impose myself on the batters by getting in their ears, daring them to get out of their crease. I enjoy being aggressive, rather than just reacting."
Russell's England career embodies the wicketkeeping conundrum. In his first full series, he scored a hundred against the 1989 Australians and, because he was also the best keeper around, seemed certain to be a fixture for the next decade. Yet 18 months later he was dropped: England needed to claw back a losing series at Adelaide in 1990-91, so an extra bowler was needed. Stewart's superior batting became the panacea whenever England had to retrieve a losing position.
The captain Graham Gooch still defends the decision. "For a long time England have been in the position where four front-line bowlers aren't enough on good wickets. The Australians and the West Indians of the 1980s could get away with just four, because at least two of them would be worldclass performers. I had to get the extra bowler in because we were behind in the series and needed more options."
Surprisingly, one man less than happy at the decision was the England coach at the time, Stewart's father, Micky. "I didn't like it early on because Alec and Mike Atherton were a big plus as an opening partnership of contrasting styles, with fine temperaments. Also I thought that Jack Russell would end up getting consistent runs at seven. But the one-off became a pattern over the next few years and we lost that major attribute of a settled opening pair while playing a keeper who wasn't as good as Jack at the time."
He thinks his son improved, though. "I honestly believe that Alec became a better keeper standing back than Jack Russell. Jack was of course a natural and Alec had to work at the job, but there were times when Jack would spill a straightforward catch for some unaccountable reason when standing back. Alec, once he gave as much time to his preparation with the gloves as his batting, was very consistent."
For the past five years, Micky Stewart has scoured Surrey looking for young cricketers to send on to The Oval, men like Rikki Clarke, who made his Test debut in Bangladesh. He has unearthed plenty of talent. "But the one department where I haven't seen anything special is wicket-keeping. We need to keep the role of the specialist keeper to the fore."
Yet the England wicketkeeper no longer gets the specialist coaching batsmen and bowlers expect. Both Alec Stewart and Russell valued hugely the input of Alan Knott before and during every Test, but their successor has to be largely self-motivated in his preparations. What does that tell us about the value placed by the England coaching set-up on the job?
It will be interesting to see just who nails down the place as Stewart's successor. Chris Read of Nottinghamshire was given first crack. But, among the next generation, Russell rates highly both Phil Mustard and Andrew Pratt at Durham, and Simon Guy at Yorkshire. But he says the outstanding English keeper is 34 and has no chance of representing his country any more. "Keith Piper has the most beautiful hands and makes it look so easy. He should've scored enough runs to have made them pick him for England." Which is where we came in...
"It can therefore be laid down as an absolute principle in team selection that the best wicketkeeper, irrespective of all other considerations, must always be chosen..."
MCC Cricket Coaching Book (1952)
"...That remains my philosophy."
"Wicketkeeping could go the same way as spin bowling. They don't stand up enough any more and Knotty, one of the all-time greats, didn't help by doing that standing back to the medium-pacers. I used to joke with him that anyone who had an eye for the ball could don the gloves and do it standing back and he'd get mad at me."
"Don't waste the wicketkeeping talent we've got in this country by giving the gloves to batters. We'll be paying the penalty 20 years down the line. Go for the stumper ahead of the stopper every time."
"We don't know if we've got any high-class keepers now because bowlers don't do
enough with the ball other than use the big seam on green wickets."
Pat Murphy covers England cricket for BBC Radio Five Live. He has co-authored five books with three England wicket-keepers - Bob Taylor, Jack Russell and Alec Stewart.