Read's artistry leaves a lasting impression

Chris Read played only 15 Tests for England but the game has lost a little of its grace now that he has entered retirement

Tim Wigmore
Tim Wigmore
Chris Read heads off into retirement, Sussex v Notts, Specsavers Championship, Division Two, Hove, September 28, 2017

A keeper to the last: Read heads off into retirement with his pads on  •  Getty Images

Chris Read laughs. He has just been told that 17 of his 26 first-class centuries came after his last Test match for England, in Sydney at the start of 2007. "I should have just scored a few more earlier, shouldn't I?"
As his career ends, there remains a little lingering frustration, the sort that may never entirely dissipate, about an international stint that encompassed 15 Tests in four spells over eight years yet still predated his peak.
Mostly, though, there is contentment about a wonderful two decades at Nottinghamshire. The last of those was spent as captain, including leading the side to the County Championship in 2010, while also being their most dependable batsman and a wicketkeeper of beguiling grace and reliability.
This is the deeper point of Read's retirement - not merely the end of a terrific career, but what it seems to represent: the end of one of the last wicketkeeping artists, a breed for whom keeping behind the stumps was not a mere addendum to the more serious business of scoring runs in front of them, and who embraced diving around on the turf as an expression of themselves.
"I always saw myself as a wicketkeeper first and foremost. That's how I grew up. It was keeping first, and making sure that's taken care of," Read reflects. It is the sort of view that, in today's game, would not pass as very sensible career advice to keeper-batsmen, who know that batting performance is the most obvious metric of their worth.
Read also developed the mindset to withstand the vagaries of the wicketkeeper's job - they are a breed that, like postmen, pilots or subeditors, are easily ignored until they err
Wicketkeeping in the modern age has become largely a functional pursuit; to see Read was to be reminded of what it can still be elevated to: artistry. It is the supple hands, nimble footwork and unobtrusiveness - because his mistakes were so rare - for which Read will be remembered.
Cricket has never been good at quantifying the worth of wicketkeepers, yet Read's numbers reflect his enduring excellence. There are the records - an astounding 1580 dismissals in professional cricket, the most by a Nottinghamshire wicketkeeper, and over 1000 catches in first-class cricket, a feat no cricketer may ever emulate again.
Even more striking are figures collated by the statistician Charles Davis, who has been recording dropped catches and stumpings in Test cricket since 2001. During this period, Read missed only three out of 46 chances - the best record of any keeper in the world; Geraint Jones and Matt Prior both missed around 17% of their chances, almost three times as many as Read's 6.5%. As a pure gloveman, Read was not merely an English great, he has claims to being an all-time great, no matter his paucity of international cricket.
Through it all, Read was endlessly curious about his craft, unstinting in his quest for any tweaks that could bring improvement. If the abiding image of the young Read is of him arriving in first-class cricket in 1998, baby-faced yet essentially a fully formed wicketkeeper, it is also something of a myth. In the summer of 2001, two years after his Test debut, Read felt like he "didn't have a settled rhythm or routine". Out of exasperation, he approached Bruce French, another former Nottinghamshire wicketkeeper and his long-time mentor. Read brought up Ian Healy - "my technical wicketkeeping hero" (the sort of phrase only a wicketkeeper's wicketkeeper would ever use) - and asked, "Why do the Australian keepers look to catch the ball on the inside; why do they catch the ball the way they do?"
Read and French resolved to learn from the best of the Australian technique - essentially to focus more on footwork before catching the ball, and to take more catches on his inside hip, increasing the chances of the ball sticking.
"I focused on looking to catch the ball in line with my inside hip, which would give me a better chance of covering more ground from the outside edge. All of a sudden I found that my technique gave me a new rhythm."
And so, for the remainder of his career, Read's wicketkeeping became "a little bit of a hybrid between the Australian and English method", varying his footwork depending on how much the ball was wobbling and carrying after passing the stumps. Normally he used his feet extensively, but keeping to New Zealand seamer Andre Adams - "he wobbled the ball more than anyone I've ever kept to" - Read would stick to the English method.
Through this Read learned that, as a wicketkeeper, "You have to adapt. There's not just one technique out there." He learned, too, how to evaluate and improve through the long county season without the benefit of a full-time wicketkeeping coach. "You're not reliant on someone else to say you're not doing this right. I was able to understand my game at quite a young age and fine-tune myself."
Before matches, Read focused on two aspects: "rhythm and reaction". Rhythm came through standing back, receiving underarm feeds or hits off the bat, and developing a relationship with the slip cordon; any newcomer would be sought out for a chat on working together in the slips. Meanwhile Read developed his reaction times through a mixture of devices, like catching ramps and boards that would hurl balls at him from close up, and drills, including ones where he was forced to catch one-handed. Players and coaches were pestered to shadow-bat in front of him, to create a distraction resembling those in the game itself. With Wayne Noon, a long-time assistant coach for Notts and a former keeper himself, Read devised new drills whenever he feared "getting stale".
When Paul Franks, a former fast bowler, became assistant coach for 2017, player had to talk coach through what to do: "You almost need to train your coach as well, if he's not a natural wicketkeeper."
Read also developed the mindset to withstand the job of the wicketkeeper's - they are a breed that, like postmen, pilots or subeditors, are easily ignored until they err. "You're always in the spotlight. It's a bit like a goalkeeper in football, you might make an error first ball of a day, you've got another 96 overs to get through. You've got to be resilient.
Gilchrist's emergence may well have cost Read international caps. And yet Gilchrist also galvanised Read into improving his batting, and ultimately becoming a better cricketer.
"Mentally you have to love wicketkeeping. It's all-consuming - every day you could have a great chance to alter the course of a game. You're going to have days where you drop catches. It's how you try and maintain that level mental state, where you're not getting too excited when you catch a blinder and forget to catch the next ball and you're not getting too down when you drop a catch because every keeper misses catches and stumpings. It's how you get over that, how you step up next time."
For all of his mastery behind the stumps, in a sense Read's reinvention as a batsman was more impressive. In his timing, Read was unlucky: his international debut came four months before Adam Gilchrist played his first Test for Australia. Immediately expectations of what a wicketkeeper could achieve with the bat were changed, irrevocably.
In 1998, his first summer in the first-class game, Read averaged 25.06, placing him in the top half of county keepers that year. By the early 2000s, such numbers were scarcely acceptable among keepers in first-class cricket, let alone sufficient to win international elevation. Read seemed like a man out of time, a silent movie actor in the age of talkie films. Certainly England's coach Duncan Fletcher thought as much.
After his final two Tests, in the 2006-07 Ashes whitewash, Read could have resorted to an extended sulk, in despair of his treatment by Fletcher, who is dismissive of him in his autobiography. Read was criticised for his batting method - "As he does not really have a defensive technique he always has to look to smash the ball" - and for his lack of aggression, with his failure to get involved in a slanging match between Paul Collingwood, at slip, and Shane Warne, who was batting for Australia, in that 2007 Sydney Test offered as an example. The implication was that Read lacked fight.
No one at Nottinghamshire would agree. In County Championship cricket at Trent Bridge this century, the sight of Read walking out at 100 for 5 - and sometimes much worse - has been the precursor to puckish counterattacking, haring singles, punching drives and scything anything short outside off stump.
Over 11 summers since his final Test, Read scored 9536 first-class runs at 44.14, figures that are even more compelling considering that his home ground was Trent Bridge, where batsmen were under persistent attack from the swinging and seaming ball, and that nine of those years were in Division One. Read was not merely an idiosyncratic irritant, in the traditional mould of the keeper-batsman; often he seemed to be Notts' last and only bulwark against defeat, routinely playing innings that would have been properly celebrated had they been authored by another batsman.
In 2012 against Somerset, Read arrived at 20 for 4; he departed with 104 not out, when Notts had been bowled out for 162, and only extras had also exceeded 10. Even this summer, Read continued to make Fletcher's assertion about a lack of fight seem absurd. A half-century in the Royal London One-Day Cup final alongside a brilliant hundred by Alex Hales ensured Read would be able to lift the trophy as skipper.
He was able to secure Championship promotion too, thanks to a very final innings that distilled the essence of Read the batsman. Coming in at 65 for 5 against Sussex, still 500 runs behind when needing a draw to seal promotion, Read lashed anything over-pitched through the covers and reached a breezy century with a hooked six. There was a job to do, and it was not Read's way to let that fall to others.
The effect of Gilchrist on Read was two-pronged. Gilchrist's emergence may well have cost Read international caps. And yet Gilchrist, combined with Read's own struggles with the bat for England, also galvanised Read into improving his batting, and ultimately becoming a better cricketer.
"I had to improve, I had to get better," he reflects. "There were some frustrating aspects of my international career, no doubt, but from my point of view I made a concerted effort after playing international cricket to show that the perception that I couldn't bat was wrong. I had a lot of inner drive to prove to everyone that I was a top batsman, and was able to, or should have been able to, succeed with the bat at Test cricket.
"I used to do things like comparing myself to whoever was keeping for England at that point. Am I scoring as many, am I averaging more, can I get my career average up to 40? Little challenges like that."
And so a player who appeared to be the victim of evolution in his sport instead became emblematic of it, and how terrific wicketkeepers could become equally valuable in front of the stumps.
"I had to evolve as a batsman, I had to keep up. It was a very sudden shift really, from a nation of very, very good glovemen, where batting was considered a bit of a bonus to a nation of youngsters who'd grown up and had their formative years watching Gilchrist and knowing that's what everyone wants. If I hadn't made that change and hadn't been able to evolve and score the weight of runs that I ended up doing, maybe my career wouldn't have been half as long."
There's still a belief that you choose the batsman first and the keeper second, so a keeper has to be able to bat before they're even looked at for their glovework. Part of me thinks that's a lazy way to think
While the shift in wicketkeepers' priorities is undeniable - "making sure people's batting games are in order before their catching games" - Read does not despair for the future of English keeping.
After "the Gilchrist effect" led teams to jeopardise their keeping standards while attempting to replicate Gilchrist's run production, now Read glimpses "a happy medium" in wicketkeeping, citing Ben Foakes and John Simpson, of Surrey and Middlesex, as players who do not require their counties to make any compromises over either keeping or batting. Cricket's burgeoning data revolution could yet lead to a radical reassessment of the worth of the keeper too, especially in T20 - "because every ball is an event, you have the opportunity as a keeper to win the game."
Yet Read still feels the craft is not given all the support that it should have, compared to other positions in cricket, as reflected in the paucity of specialist wicketkeeping coaches; even French is not full-time with England.
"Do we take it seriously enough? The support for keepers is now greater than it was. However there's still a belief that you choose the batsman first and the keeper second, so a keeper has to be able to bat before they're even looked at for their glovework. Part of me thinks that's a lazy way to think. If you can be bothered to work on the keeping, why can't you be bothered to work at the keeper's batting?
"I'd like to see more effort being put into real pure glovemen at a young age - how can you get him to be the batter that he needs to be? It seems to me that they look at it the other way round. They say 'Crikey, this guy's a very good batter, but not a very good keeper' - but not the other way around. That's kind of frustrating. If you've got a good keeper, don't rule him out because he can't bat at five. Work with him. See where it goes."
Anyone who enlists Read in his new career as coach, at Uppingham School and potentially as a consultant for professional teams, will find a man who refuses to countenance any compromise in wicketkeeping standards.
For all the transformation in his batting, and how Read tried to divide his training time equally between batting and keeping, his perfectionism with the gloves means he still spent more time practising his keeping. "In reality, maybe I spent more time catching balls."
And so it was entirely fitting that, when his team-mates tried to entice him to bowl at Hove last month, in pursuit of a maiden first-class wicket, Read resisted. "You'll be remembered for when you walk off - the pictures should reflect that," his coach Peter Moores, a former keeper himself, told him.
As he walked off after 50 overs that passed by without conceding a single bye, never mind missing a chance, the very last image of Read as a professional cricketer was just as it should have been: a player of rare grace - with his keeping pads on.

Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts