Australia’s wicket keeping woes going into the first Ashes test could be summed up by the cliché phrase ‘pick your poison.’
Should there be a show of faith in the underwhelming ability and all round incompetence of incumbent Matthew Wade or should we revert back to the man he replaced, Peter Nevill? Nevill is a player that has the skills with bat and gloves to be a very fine test performer but has been largely frustrating in the 17 games in which he has donned the Baggy Green. A batting average of 22.28 coupled with some foibles behind the stumps defines his performances. Nevill showed this in the first round of the Sheffield Shield. Most saw the Ashes position as his for the taking in the wake of Wade’s profound struggles only for Nevill to once more struggle with bat and stand out for a keeping howler.
Another option is investing in young South Australian Alex Carey who is a throwback to the past with his delightful glove work that is truly elite. Much of the aversion to investing in Carey is concerns over his batting. The potential in his batting is well touted but he is yet to perform to this potential in the Sheffield Shield where he only averages 24.54. This will be an irrelevant point if the selectors stay true to their controversial ‘horses for courses’ selection policy. The dominance of the Australian top five batsmen in home conditions where they all average near or well above 60 negates the reliance on the keeper to be a major factor with the blade. Hilton Cartwright, who is likely to be at 6 in the line up will add to the batting dominance of the team giving further weight to the inclusion of Carey. Cartwright has been dominating with bat at Sheffield Shield level with an average of 50.80. When you couple this with the noted weaknesses in the English batting and with the strength of the Australian bowling line up, the support for an astute gloveman would fit well within a ‘horses for courses’ policy.
The batting ills of the English team raise an interesting prospect when looking at their keeping position. Jonny Bairstow is the current incumbent and is respected as one of the strongest parts of their line up. Much of the focus is on his batting because it gives such depth and versatility to the line up. The ability of Bairstow to shift through the gears from defensive gritty knocks to attacking counters would make him perfectly suited to be a permanent number 4 in the line up. To make this happen however, would be dependent on Bairstow giving up the gloves. The demands of being a wicketkeeper along with taking on greater responsibility by batting in the top order would be too much. It would also rely on English Captain Joe Root moving back to number three from the number four position he currently occupies. This move however would be seen internally as the ‘tail wagging the dog’ in the current English set up, as shown by Joe Root being averse to batting at three along with Bairstow following suit when it is suggested he give up the gloves.
Keeping things as they are though is not the optimal batting configuration of the team. This configuration is a prospective top 5 for the Ashes of Cook, Stoneham, Root, Bairstow and Stokes and would represent both class and solidity. The presence of Stokes is in question but there is little doubt that the cynics are right and his brush with the law will be made to ‘go away’ by the powers that be, allowing him to be part of England’s Ashes defence. This prospective top 5 would be a better choice than investing in speculative entities like James Vince, Gary Ballance and Dawid Malan. This line up could be further solidified at 6 if either young batting prodigy Dan Lawrence or Liam Livingstone are added to the Ashes squad from the English Lions Team.
The potential effect on the English batting is supported statistically by the recent example of the Sri Lankan great Kumar Sangakkara. He averaged 40.48 with bat as a full time keeper compared to 66.78 as a specialist batsman. Brendan McCullum from New Zealand also showed improved output in his batting going from averaging 34.18 when keeping to 42.94 as a specialist batsman. Both saw a distinct improvement in their batting when freed of the mental and physical demands of keeping.
The presence of Ben Foakes in the squad not only supports the move but begs the question of why it hasn’t been done already. Foakes was recently referred to as the ‘best wicketkeeper in the world’ by English great Alec Stewart. It seems absurd not to fully utilise this. The inclusion of Foakes would provide the same added support to the English bowling attack as has been touched on when touting Alex Carey for a role in the Australian team. Foakes’ glovework would turn half chances into dismissals with his profound skills. His batting is also of a high calibre as shown by his average in English County cricket of 41.84. The move would add further depth to the batting while facilitating Bairstow to be the answer to the batting ills in England’s top 5.
A simple re-jigging of the English line up could greatly enhance their chances of retaining the cherished urn.