For those of you here to read a gripping exposé of the dark forces at play in ensuring a hard Irish border is not formed in the event of a no deal Brexit, I am afraid you may be disappointed (and sorry for the clickbait). If, however, you find yourself here to unpick the sorry state of wicket-keeping in the modern game please carry on.
On the opening day of England’s warm-up match against the Sri Lanka Board President’s XI, the tourists deployed no less than three wicket-keepers during their time in the field. While England followers by now may have grown accustomed to the Butler/Bairstow switcheroo when the ball changes colour, the incredulity of the latest display of their team’s ‘sharing is caring’ policy when it comes to behind-the-stumps personnel, is enough to dislodge the tattered white bucket hat from Jack Russell’s head.
Yet England’s keeping conundrums are simply the apogee of a trend that has been in motion for decades: some call it the rise of the wicket-keeper batsmen, I call it the rise of the ‘backstop’.
A backstop is quite simply any wicket-keeper selected primarily because of their batting, and thus skill with the gloves is of secondary importance. Jos Butler and Jonny Bairstow are perfect examples, both being recognised as world-class batsmen, yet their role with the gloves has been seen as a work in progress, effectively that with enough coaching their wicket-keeping will prove adequate at the highest level. This certainly does not mean that they are bad wicket-keepers, just not specialists. In fact, many of the best players in international cricket can easily be considered nothing more than backstops: Brendan McCullum or AB de Villiers for a start.
Yet is this because the specialist wicket-keeper is obsolete? With ever expanding tail-ends and the growth of limited overs cricket where emphasis leans increasingly towards the batsmen, it seems a place in the side for an expert gloveman who nudges the ball about has all but disappeared.
Of course a significant portion of the blame may lie with Adam Gilchrist whose phenomenal career effectively ended the those of many ‘traditional’ wicket-keepers before they started. He single-handedly galvanised ‘No. 7’ as the wicket-keeper batsmen, not just a plucky fifty at the end of an innings, but a full blooded hundred to take away the game. This was essentially the bench-mark for other sides to match, with Dhoni, Sangakkara, and Boucher coming extremely close. Yet these are once-in-a-generation players, freaks of nature who were blessed with the remarkable ability to do both in equal splendour – why bother trying to emulate them.
On the other hand, Jarrod Kimber of ESPN suggests that rather than a modern phenomenon, the rise of the wicket-keeper batsmen began in the 1930s with Kent and England legend Les Ames who averaged over 40 with the bat in 47 tests before the Second World War. Kimber notes that before this, ‘a No. 7 might have been a specialist batsman or an allrounder, or maybe a wicketkeeper with abnormal batting talent. And it was abnormal when a keeper could bat.’
This perhaps puts into perspective the commonly held view of Alan Knott and Jack Russell as two of the purest exponents of the art of wicket-keeping and the greatest to play for England. While few would place them in a list of England’s great batsmen, they were certainly no slouches in this department either, the former averaging 32 and the latter 27. Yet these are the sort of players who have fallen out of favour in the modern game. Russell’s successor and rival, Alec Stewart, fits far better into the ‘backstop’ role as despite being a useful keeper he will no doubt be remembered for his superb batting. However, Stewart only averaged 7 runs more than Russell whilst wearing the gloves and therefore begs the question, are big scores more important than wicket-keeping prowess?
The problem is wicket-keeping prowess is an exceptionally hard thing to quantify. Compared to the statistical analysis of batting and bowling, the methods by which we analyse wicketkeepers are prehistoric. Keepers are largely judged by look and feel, and of course byes, which is effectively like judging a bowler purely on their action and how many wides they bowl.
In reality, stumping an in-form batsmen or building pressure by standing up to a quick can be as valuable as scoring a hundred in the context of a game. Just ask Durham’s Chris Scott who put down Brian Lara on 18 when he went on to make his record breaking 501. Obviously this value is impossible to quantify but it does make you wonder if this backstop ethos is based on false logic.
Regardless, last summer saw the end of an era with, Essex’s James Foster, perhaps the last genuine wicket-keeper bowing out from the game. Foster was without a doubt the greatest keeper I have seen on the county circuit, making standing up to 80mph look like plucking out a tennis ball in the garden. Yet Foster was largely overlooked by England, earning just 23 international caps. Whilst this is perhaps justifiable given the subsequent success of Matt Prior, and Geraint Jones forever immortalised as an ’05 hero in his orange Puma kit, it is beyond doubt that we were denied a highlight reel of lighting-quick stumpings and inconceivable grabs from the Essex man.
But England’s triple keeper chaos last week did offer some relief to the wicket-keeping purist in the form of Ben Foakes. Whilst he still firmly fits the mould of the wicket-keeper batsman, his glove-work is respected in its own right by the majority of pundits and to tarnish him with the ‘backstop’ label would certainly be doing him a disservice. His inclusion in the side would no doubt create some serious future selection issues when Bairstow returns from injury, and the overwhelming focus on his ability to score runs over his keeping will leave him open to heavy criticism if he struggles to convert his from with the bat into Test runs. I thoroughly hope that he goes well and manages to reverse the backstop trend. However, I fear that simply adding another middle order batsman who is useful with the gloves may further reduce the stability of this England side.