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To keep, or not to keep?

by Justin Rourke

One of the most emotive topics in English cricket over recent years has been the selection of the wicket keeper, in particular the Test match keeper.

Broadly speaking there are two schools of thought; the first (see Ben Jones) is that the role is not actually that important, and that as most keeping is stood back it is more important to have someone who adds runs. The second is that keeping wicket is an art, a skill, and much like bowling it should be treated as such and runs are not the main measure of competency.

For anyone who does not follow me on twitter, I am firmly in the second camp. Keeping wicket is an art and a skill, one that much like spin bowling has been marginalised by the need for ‘three dimensional cricketers’.

This debate is not a new one, my own introduction to Test cricket came in the early 1990’s where we had the Jack Russell vs Alec Stewart debate interspersed with a season of Steve Rhodes.  No one of that era would disagree that Jack was the better keeper, Alec was good, but Jack was better. The ridiculous search for an all-rounder lead to Jack only playing 54 Tests – during which he averaged 27 with the bat and scored 2 test match centuries.

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During the same era Ian Healy was seen as the premier keeper/batsman in the world and he played 119 tests – during which he averaged 27 with the bat and scored 4 Test centuries.

As an aside Alec Stewart played 82 Tests as keeper, averaging 35 (6 centuries). He played 51 Tests as a specialist batsman and averaged 47 (9 centuries). Perhaps this is over simplified, but playing Jack as keeper and Alec as a batman would increase the runs scored and the quality of the keeping.

Adam Gilchrist made his Test debut in 1999 and retired in 2008 after 96 Tests with 17 centuries and an average of 48. He was a good keeper to, although Shane Warne was quoted as saying not in Healy’s league. Gilly changed the game for keepers, not just through his remarkable batting stats over a long career, but also his style. He made every team want a swashbuckling keeper at no7 who could average almost 50 with a strike rate of 82 runs per 100 balls. In reality he was a genius and a freak, like Warne, Lara etc. – they are rare.

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Nonetheless the focus changed during this decade and everyone searched for a Gilly – England had Go Jo. Geraint Jones debuted in 2004 based on his character and his batting replacing the better keeper in Chris Read.  But was Jones actually a better batsman than Chris Read or the actual best keeper of that generation James Foster?

PlayerFC matchesAverage100s
Geirant Jones20332.4515
Chris Read34937.2626
James Foster28936.6923

We love to get lost in statistics in cricket, and first class averages are not always an indicator of Test match quality, but still interesting reading.

Moving on from statistics, how much does a keeper set the tone for a fielding team? In my opinion they are pivotal, your keeper will touch the ball more often than any other member in the side. The confidence of seeing a keeper take the ball comfortably and cleanly from each ball bowled, each throw has a positive impact on the fielding side. This is far more important than the ability to ‘sledge’ the opposition. Also, how many times do we see slips too deep because the keeper is too deep, a proper keeper will create chances by standing closer to the bat, by the use of quality footwork to cover a wider distance and taking a higher percentage of chances.

Moving on, as luck would have it we did find out own poor man’s Gilly – the exceptional Matt Prior. Matt had his challenges when he first played for England in 2007, Ryan Sidebottom in particular suffered as his keeping was not good enough. However, to his credit Matt worked on this and came back again as a very good keeper. For me what sets Matt apart is that his career combined with that of Graeme Swann, so not only did he get to keep to Jimmy and Stuart but he spent an extended amount of time keeping up to the wicket to a top class spinner – the true test of a keeper. He finished his career with 79 Tests, and a batting average of 40 and 7 centuries.

These exception figures bolstered ‘the Gilly effect’ – the drive for a no7 keeper who could counter attack. So in 2014 we entered the new search for a keeper batsman, and 6 years later we are largely in the same position with the same protagonists.

Jonny Bairstow:

Keeper or notTest matchesAverage100’s
Not keeper22281

Jos Buttler

Keeper or notTest matchesAverage100’s
Not keeper20361

These two have swapped the position over the last 6 years, Jonny, like Matt Prior was not a good enough keeper at the outset. However he worked very hard to become a competent Test match keeper and was shunted around the batting order – what is clear from his stats, demeanour and words is that he is a better player when keeping wicket.

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Jos for me is an unconvincing keeper, but a very important leader and strategist in the team. He also thrives at no6 and broadly has appeared to perform better with the bat when not keeping wicket.

Then there is Ben Foakes – Ben is the best wicket keeper of the three. He also has shown in a short Test career that he has temperament to play international cricket. At this level temperament is perhaps more important than talent or technique – although all three help.

PlayerFC MatchesAverage100’s
Jos Buttler11233.077
Jonny Bairstow18343.4124
Ben Foakes11038.6910

I have read this summer that Ben is susceptible to quick/short pitched bowling – this seems to be an odd and unsubstantiated rumour. Trevor Bayliss felt he was good enough to play as a batsman in the last Ashes trip.

Going full circle I recall Duncan Fletcher saying it was more important to find a keeper who can bat at Test level and he will learn to keep. I’d argue the opposite, a wicket keeper is a specialist skill, one that takes years of practice and training to hone. A good keeper sets the tone for a fielding side and is the barometer of quality. Surely with the plethora of batting coaches we can pick our best keeper (who is a good batsman) and develop their batting?

I can see the benefit of a counter attacker like Gilchrist, Prior … as Bairstow was … but I’d rather have an accumulator who averages 40 than a hitter who averages 30.

The England wicket keeper debate is an emotive one, as it happens Buttler, Bairstow and Foakes are three of my favourite players but in reality, they can’t all play.

I think Jonny is desperately unlucky, but if I were picking the team I’d select Ben Foakes at no7 as my wicket keeper – his skill would lift the whole team. I think Jos Buttler fresh off his recent run is worthy of continued selection at no6 – and perhaps he is a future Test captain (a debate for another blog).

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