Cricket: Why can’t England keep a settled wicketkeeper?
England's search for their own Adam Gilchrist has seen a merry-go-round of keepers come and go, writes Matthew Wiggins
Craig Kieswetter must hate Adam Gilchrist. And most modern wicketkeepers around the world probably do too.
English keepers in particular though have reason to hate him more. The nation’s search for their own Gilchrist has seen a merry-go-round of keepers come and go.
Kieswetter, although still in the side, is the latest casualty after being shunted down the order to number six for their one-day international series with Pakistan.
England’s one-day cricket is incoherent at the best of times. While the Test team have adopted a settled side and a formula that has allowed them to climb the world rankings ladder, their one-day counter parts are consistently inconsistent.
The side changes constantly, the batting order never seems natural and their use of the powerplay overs is often catastrophic.
But within this circus is perhaps the most laughable aspect of the lot, the wicketkeeper. A role that the modern English one-day team has never utilised well, with the incumbents treated very poorly.
Alec Stewart, such a stalwart of English cricket, provided stability with the gloves as well as at the top of the order for 138 games between 1989 and 2003. Those years were sheer bliss, everybody knew where they stood. But, when the end of his career started to draw near there was a real worry that no replacement was quite up to scratch.
Indeed, Stewart remains the only English wicketkeeper to score a one-day century and the revolving door of successors has seen eight different full-time keepers come and go in nine years.
However, Stewart’s idol status and high standards are not to blame for the chopping and changing. The blame for England’s obsession with their glove-men can be laid squarely in the gloves of Gilchrist.
“Gilly” changed the role of the wicketkeeper forever when he scored two fearsome one-day hundreds in three innings against South Africa in 1998. From that point on the Australian became the poster boy for quick scoring, exciting cricket, in both Tests and ODIs.
Stewart remained England’s choice for five years of the Gilchrist era, but nobody in the world was able to live with the left-hander’s destructive style.
After Stewart retired England became obsessed with replicating Australia’s success, by using their wicketkeeper as a pinch hitting opener in the 50-over format. Of the eight keepers since Stewart five have opened the batting and only one of them, Steven Davis, has a strike rate over 100.
England picked aggressive keepers to take the gloves in ODIs and became frustrated when they didn’t see Gilchrist-like results. Their impatience compounded the problem; players were moved up and down the order, or exiled from the team all together.
Craig Kieswetter’s innings in the first ODI with Pakistan tells the story perfectly. A keeper who has opened the batting in all forms of limited overs cricket his entire career, Kieswetter looked completely out of sorts at number six.
He had no game plan and ended up skying a catch after nine runs from 19 pain staking deliveries. Ultimately, there is no use in playing Kieswetter here – Jos Buttler who can use inventive shots to manoeuvre the ball is a much better option at number six or seven.
The answer to their problem could be right under their nose, just in a different form of the game. Matt Prior has been given the most chances to secure his one-day place, 56 games. He averages a measly 23.95 when opening the batting with a strike rate of 80.
Admittedly, these figures are nowhere near enough proof that the Sussex man should be reinstated. But, Prior’s growth in the Test match arena has been remarkable.
He is possibly the best keeper batsman in the world at the moment, and the closest the game has had to Gilchrist for some time, in Test matches. His comfort with his Test match role should help him relax if given another chance to open in ODIs, he has the attacking ability to fill the role and he is possibly more suited to it now than he ever was.
England’s other option, who isn’t even in the ODI squad, is Davies. He has not been given a fair trial to date and impressed selectors enough to be taken to the UAE as Priors understudy for the Pakistan Tests.
England must make up their mind. The experiment has gone on too long and they are helping nobody with the continued abject search for a keeper that mirrors Gilchrist.
Whether they will ever stop looking is another question, and with Kevin Pietersen now struggling at the top of the order too, it seems unlikely.