Regular readers will be aware of my interest in wicket keeping and my preference for “real” wicket keepers. However, with the effect that Alec Stewart and particularly Adam Gilchrist had on the position, being just a wicket-keeper is no longer good enough. Righly or wrongly, a keeper needs to be selected on the basis of his batting skills more than his keeping skills, otherwise Chris Read would have been the England keeper for the past 5-6 years.
The current group of wicket-keepers vying for places in the England test team range from the pure wicket-keeping, unorthodox batting of Chris Read to the poor wicket keeping but fine batting of Matt Prior with current incumbent Tim Ambrose and James Foster in between (Phil Mustard has been deliberately omitted as neither his matting nor his keeping are adequate for test cricket). This situation is reminiscent of the early 1990s, and the start of the career of England’s archetypal batsman-wicket keeper: Alec Stewart.
Stewart started out as a batsman in 1990 before replacing the specialist wicket keeper, Jack Russell, during the Ashes series of 1991 as England looked for a better balance to the team. This was in the days of Phil Defreitas and Chris Lewis as the England all rounder, who were essentially bowlers who could bat, so the need for an extra bowler or batsman was critical. The next few series then took a familiar pattern. Russell would start as the wicket keeper, with Stewart opening the batting. However, as the results became disappointing, Stewart would be moved to keep wicket to draft in an extra batsman or bowler. As Stewart’s wicket keeping improved, he spent more time as keeper, playing 82 of his 133 tests behind the stumps. This was also to the detriment of his batting average, which was 46.7 as a batsman, but only 35 when keeping wicket.
Despite these movements in his position, Stewart’s position in the team was never in doubt. He was one of England’s premier batsmen and the wicket keeping was good enough (and improving) while never in the same class as Russell. Indeed, he finished the 1990s as the top scorer in test cricket for the decade, taking over as captain of the side in 1998 with a series victory over South Africa, up to the disappointing World Cup in 1999.
So how does this help us with the England wicket keeping position? The closest that England have to Stewart is Matt Prior. Prior averages over 40 in test cricket and during his last series, away to Sri Lanka finished third in the England batting averages, behind Ian Bell and Ali Cook. The series saw a maturity in his batting, which had been previously reliant on scoring quickly. He scored 19 off 100 balls in saving the 3rd test, while he scored half-centuries during the first two tests, the second being a fine example of marshalling the tail. Despite Tim Ambrose’s fine century in the second test in New Zealand, it is difficult to imagine him playing such an innings for England in such circumstances.
Prior has started the season in blistering form. He is averaging 67 in the championship, in a Sussex team where Murray Goodwin is the only other player to average above 40 and has failed to reach fifty just once. With a test average above 40 (and 5 runs better than Stewart’s as a wicket keeper), he is clearly good enough to play for England as a specialist batsman. As with Stewart, once he is ensconced into the team, his presence will give the selectors the option of using his wicket keeping skills, and he will have the confidence to know that he is being judged mainly on his batting, with the keeping allowing other options in the team selection. He would need to improve his keeping, but the knowledge that this is not the be all and end all of his game should allow him to relax into his role
Alec Stewart was not a great wicket keeper, particularly standing up. He was however, a more than adequate keeper and one of the best batsmen in world cricket. Matt Prior could be the heir to Stewart in more ways than one.