In The Wind in the Willows, Rat tells Mole, “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” As something of an anchor in open water, boats aren’t a favourite. But it’s a phrase that can be translated into a wide array of contexts, and in cricketing terms I would say there’s little better than seeing a truly gifted wicket-keeper at work.
Coming up in Norfolk club cricket, you seldom saw them. Finding good keeping was like tracking the last Tasmanian tiger. You might spot a flash of stripes in the bush, a bit of quick work to effect a stumping, but more often they’d let one through their legs next over.
But in the grand scheme, there’s nothing quite so grand as watching quick hands, nifty footwork, and, above all, catches cleanly taken. We might delight in fast bowling spells, those fleeting hours in which we catch sublime hundreds, but little is as consistently dazzling as a genuinely competent wicket-keeper.
It seems the lot of some of the best wicket-keepers to be forgotten. Ask the question: who is the best keeper? And you’ll be pitched a list of wicket-keeper batsmen from the last twenty years. Thanks, too, to the way the cricketing population of the world skews, the most prevalent answer will likely be MS Dhoni, with little mention of Sarah Taylor or Tim Paine – or any of the past greats, Bob Taylor, Ian Healy, or Jeff Dujon.
It is a signal of the mindset that Gilchrist helped pioneer: that wicket-keepers are, fundamentally, batsmen first. When Brad Haddin scored eighty in the final innings at Lord’s in 2009, after a hundred in the previous test, to set England hearts a-flutter with nerves that Australia might somehow chase down the 522 needed to win, it was a timely reminder that Haddin was a hardened and talented batsmen – something that can be forgotten when reflecting on a career average of 32.98 – and not just a chirpy glovemen who didn’t like nice people.
That Australia is home to wicket-keeper wunderkind Gilchrist belies that fact that, more often than not, they have tended to pick their best keeper in the number seven position. It just so happened that Gilchrist, with his “just hit the ball” ethos, was the best wicket-keeper and an extraordinary late-order batsman for Australia at the time. Since then, with the exception of Matthew Wade (who looked clumsy with both bat and gloves), Australia’s picks of Haddin, Manou, Nevill, and Paine have arguably been keepers first – batsmen second.
Compare this with England’s ethos of picking those that can handle the willow but often look blindfolded behind the stumps – perhaps a reaction to chronic insecurity about batting depth – and you see a dichotomised history between the old enemies, in which Australia often err on the side of picking good catchers, and England hope a keepers runs will make up for their drops.
Bairstow is an obvious example of an average keeper who has been required to catch-up as a wicket-keeper – often earning the ire of Bob Willis in his early career. But one of England’s best wicket-keepers in recent memory, Matt Prior, was also, for some time, one of their worst. Both were picked because of their batting and brought up to international standard by the unsung hero of England cricket, Bruce French. It is part of the England trend of picking batsmen to fulfil specialist roles, with Ali as frontline spinner and England’s most recent inductee to keeping duties – and one of the best they’ve ever picked – Ben Foakes unfairly dropped to accommodate the underachieving Bairstow.
Foakes can join a long line of English keepers who have missed out to better batsmen: Bob Taylor to Alan Knott (though Knott was an excellent gloveman in his own right), Jack Russell to Alec Stewart, Chris Read and James Foster to Geraint Jones, and now a wealth of talented keepers who are being kept out by Bairstow.
It is a rare thing if your best wicket-keeper also happens to be an excellent batsman. Sarah Taylor, arguably the best wicket-keeper in the world, has led a trend in the women’s game that has seen a steady stream of excellent keeper-batswomen in the women’s game. Perhaps a measure of the value of a smaller talent pool, which has seen New Zealand men produce a group of talented wicket-keeper batsmen in the last decade.
But it has been a trend lacking in the English men’s game. More often than not, the best wicket-keepers in the country have been under-developed batsmen, and keepers who have genuine batting talent have been, with the exception of Foakes, average keepers. The county game is currently blessed with a wealth of keeper-batsmen of varying degrees in skill, with Sam Billings, Alex Davies, and Joe Clarke frequently turning out for the Lions. But it is Ben Cox, of Worcestershire, who is one of the most impressive wicket-keepers in the English game, second only to Foakes. Initially spotty, his form with the bat has improved out of sight over the past few seasons – Worcestershire showing the kind of rewards that can be reaped from sticking with young players.
It is a lesson many of us – including myself – wished that Hampshire had learned while buying their way into division one. While Adam Wheater recently tried, and failed, to bring James Foster’s career at Essex to a premature end, he had previously succeeded in ousting perhaps the best wicket-keeper England has ever produced.
The first time I saw Michael Bates was in Dominic Cork’s dominant Hampshire T20 side, standing up to every bowler and missing nothing. It takes a lot to make me notice anything happening in a T20 match, but after years of being treated to syncopated thuds and thumps by clumsy England keepers, the silence of Bates behind the stumps was deafening.
It’s often said that if you’re talking about a wicket-keeper, they’re not doing their job properly – and if Bob Willis is talking about them, they’re in real trouble. It’s one of those uncelebrated jobs we forget when things are going well and scapegoat when they’re struggling. But as Bates emerged onto the county scene, we were talking about a wicket-keeper for their excellence. His smooth movement, quick hands, and effortless athleticism were brought up every time Hampshire appeared on television.
The praise was well-deserved. But that didn’t mask the fact that Bates, for all his talent, was a number ten – maybe eleven – batsman. He was a joy to watch, but he was also a throwback. Aging commentators gushing over his skill was tinged with heady nostalgia for the days they watched Bob Taylor or Alan Knott. And like all nostalgia, it couldn’t sustain itself. Within three years, Hampshire had imported Adam Wheater and Bates was out in the cold. A brief stint with Somerset notwithstanding, it was the end of Bates’ career. Six years later, now twenty-eight, and he’s back at Hampshire – as wicket-keeping coach.
In 2015, Alan Gardner demonstrated that Bates’ numbers weren’t so different to James Foster’s or Chris Read’s at the same age. In a signal of the modern need for instant success, they were allowed to develop as batsmen and became batting stalwarts for their counties, while Bates was let go.
And Bates isn’t the only one. How many young players have been lost to the game due to early inconsistency? Who haven’t had a chance because England have started a trend of picking batsmen in specialist roles? Not just wicket-keepers, either. Moeen Ali is a batsmen playing spin-bowler and keeping better spinners out of the side. The list of promising young spinners who have gone unsupported or left the game is worryingly long: Tom Craddock, Max Waller, Will Beer, Simon Kerrigan, Michael Munday, Scott Borthwick, to name only a few, have, in some form or another, come and gone.
Another promising keeper, Ryan Davies, from Kent replaced Bates at Somerset, before being replaced himself by Steven Davies because of similar batting deficiencies. In fact, Ben Cox is something of an outlier in being supported by his county and the effect is shown in his recent batting form – though it should be said that, despite this impressive improvement, few outside Worcestershire talk about him as an England prospect.
Spinner or wicket-keeper, in England we expect much, provide little support, and reward progress with indifference. There might be little as enjoyable in the game as seeing a sublime keeper at their work, but the apathy with which the ECB treat that kind of talent is staggering. We dislike Bairstow sulking over being replaced as England wicket-keeper in the winter, but he does have a point about how had he has been forced to work to get to where he is – even if the privilege it’s instilled in him is unwelcome.
The most recent Ben Stokes fiasco shows how long a rope we are prepared to afford an English all-rounder – so ready are we to laud batsmen and fast-bowlers, especially those who can do both. But it is often the less appreciated arts that are more demanding and contribute to the truly great moments in England cricket. England’s recent Asian form is glaring – victory over a limp Sri Lanka notwithstanding – in a period in which they have recently ignored real spinners and keepers; telling too that one of their greatest modern triumphs, against India in 2012/13 came at the hands of Swann and Panesar. Even that Sri Lanka victory was instigated by major contributions from Ben Foakes and Jack Leach.
One of the best wicket-keepers the world has seen is now, at twenty-eight, teaching others how to keep. Michael Bates might have fit neatly into this England side, so abundant are its all-rounders – after all, both Read and Foster played test cricket before their batting came together. But instead his playing days are behind him. Similarly, Ben Foakes and Ben Cox struggle to make their case. Foakes has been unfairly jettisoned because management doesn’t want to upset Jonny Bairstow, Cox isn’t even spoken about. In the meanwhile, England continues to underperform, repeatedly changing their side for lack of balance.
A management possessed of a better sense of clarity might take a moment to reflect on the fact that England have recently looked their best when they picked a genuine wicket-keeper and spinner, and weren’t afraid to make the big calls to leave their favourite players out. But, as recent events  have shown, the ECB are about as transparent as my cat’s mood.
It is true, there is nothing so enjoyable as watching the likes of Michael Bates and Ben Foakes keep wicket, to not hear the rattling of a ball taken clumsily through the stump-microphone, but we are kept bereft of such entertainment by a culture of apathy towards specialism in this country. I find myself looking forward to Australia’s visit in the summer, if only for the opportunity to watch Tim Paine behind the stumps. And if, in a series contested between two deeply flawed teams, Australia come out on top, the ECB might be forced to learn from the lessons of history, of their best triumphs, of Sri Lanka and show some deference to the specialists. It will come too late for Michael Bates, but, with luck, we might see his like again.