There is a scene in an old episode of The Simpsons where Principal Skinner is addressing a new intake of students and Bart scuppers it by unfurling a banner with the message – “Skinner is a wiener”. The Principal of Springfield Elementary looks up forlornly to the heavens and mutters “you’ve lost them Seymour. You’ve lost them”. He knows immediately that regardless of what he does throughout the school year, they will only ever remember him for this one moment.
It is a bit like that with Chris Read. Except his humiliation didn’t happen in front of a few primary aged kids, but a full stadium and thousands watching on television. Regrettably there are few more public places to be embarrassed than on the 1st day of a Lords test match. Nobody will need reminding of the time he attempted to duck a slowly looping Chris Cairns yorker, only to see the ball crash into his stumps. You can still see his bemused expression on YouTube, accompanied by 290,000 hits.
It seems rather cruel to consider, that for many, this will be all that they will remember of Chris Read’s international career. I seem to recall something relatively similar happening to Graham Thorpe, but his temporary misjudgement is masked and obscured by 100 test matches, 6,744 runs and an average that is just a shade below 45.
Read’s numbers, at least at international level, make for less appealing reading. In 15 test matches he passed fifty just once amid a final average of only 18.94. It is the absence of more compelling distractions that leaves Read’s reputation amongst the casual fan exposed; with overbearing emphasis placed on that brief episode at Lords.
It is worth recalling though that Read secured 48 catches and six stumping’s at test level along with a further 43 dismissals in ODI’s, albeit with a similar batting average. He is widely lauded, along with James Foster, as the finest English wicketkeeper of the recent past – one that should have played more tests but for the perception that his batting wasn’t up to the required standard for the modern game. These days received wisdom dictates that a modern keeper must be multi-faceted and earn his place in the team as a batsman by right.
To place this into context, I recently had a healthy discussion on a cricket forum with someone that viewed Alec Stewart as being England’s best keeper of the past 30 years. Perhaps not an outrageous position to adopt, but pointing to a worrying shift in priorities, when the central tenet of his argument was that Stewart averaged nearly 40 with the bat.
This narrow focus on a batting average is as a highly unreliable and flawed method. Winning Test matches, rests on the central requirement that it is almost always necessary to take 20 wickets. On the occasions when the ball bounced off Alec Stewart’s or Geraint Jones’s hands, or they groped air attempting a sharp stumping chance, how we regretted the absence of a Jack Russell or Chris Read.
In another era it is almost certain that Read would have gained more international recognition. For example, Godfrey Evans in an illustrious 91 test-match career averaged a mere 20.49 with the bat. Statistics that were little bettered across his entire first-class career where he averaged just 21.22. More recently Bob Taylor could only muster an average of 16 in 51 test-matches. A limited achievement he could not better in the county game.
In the dim and distant past, Sir Jack Hobbs old friend and Surrey teammate, Herbert “Struddy” Strudwick averaged below ten in a 28 test career, and would routinely frequent the lowest spot in the order. His capabilities with the gloves taking full precedence over his obvious batting limitations.
The thing that unites all these legends, notwithstanding their obvious prowess behind the timbers, is that their test batting statistics were remarkably consistent with their overall first class figures. Read, conversely, averaged upwards of 37 in the county game. He might have ultimately found his feet with the bat at test level if only the selectors had more faith in him.
But let us not dwell on the banalities of mere figures and the might-have-beens. They rarely tell the full story, and this is especially evident when considering the career of the Nottinghamshire man.
Quite a few years back I got to play a tour game in Chris Read’s hometown of Paignton in Devon. It was mostly memorable for a steam train that methodically clattered into the station that was positioned just a stone’s throw from the boundary edge. Not surprisingly the cacophony was soon followed by a blanket of steam that wended its way from the boundary edge and followed a haphazard path out into the middle.
The scene itself was like something from E.A. McDonnell’s “England, their England” and would have had Henry Blofeld or Michael Portillo salivating or at least – hopefully – lost for words. The other most memorable thing about Paignton Cricket Club was how much everyone wanted to talk about Chris Read.
This was the club where Read’s cricketing journey began and everyone spoke well of him. From the wily old veterans, some of which had probably coached him in the nets as a junior, and the young Colts who had perhaps only seen him on the television. Everyone you met there, sooner or later would refer to Chris Read, as a direct consequence of their justified pride in him.
When he called it a day last week, he sent out his thanks on Twitter to Paignton, Devon and Nottinghamshire Cricket clubs. Despite a single appearance for Gloucestershire early in his career and international honours with England, these are the only clubs that Read has represented.
In an increasingly transient and fast buck chasing game, Chris Read’s career path could easily have been plucked from the earlier era of Taylor or even Evans. Despite, his decent performances in domestic T20 there are no plastic franchise away-days on his CV. Instead, there is just the solid upwards grind from club, to Minor County and ultimately Championship level.
Read is the classic example of what cricketers used to look like. Devoid of celebrity his career has largely passed under the radar of all but the most educated follower. For these people he is revered as a wicket-keeping purist and a more than capable batsman – one that would meet a batting crisis head on with a quiet combativeness that was no better exemplified than the century he chalked up last week in his final innings. Notts had been 64-5 when he strolled out to bat.
The only thing flashy about Read was his cricket. There was never the faintest chance of skunk-haircuts, Ben Stokes style brawling, or other show-and-tell excesses. A cricket-man through and through he belongs and exists solely within the parameters of the game – one that is rapidly and irretrievably slipping away from the public consciousness.
Read’s departure reminds us of what we once had and what we have lost.