Is English Keeping Fumbling Its Lines?
By dropping Sri Lanka opener Dimuth Karunaratne on the second day of the Third Test, England wicket keeper Jonny Bairstow re-opened an all too frequent debate: who should don the gloves for the national side.
Bairstow’s brilliant form with the bat arguably justifies his place in the team whether he keeps or not, but England’s lack of options behind the stumps is concerning.
Jos Buttler is the obvious name, but the Lancashire gloveman doesn’t necessarily seem like a tremendous upgrade on Bairstow when England are in the field right now.
And having played no first class cricket in 2016, it’s somewhat hard to believe he would have magically recovered from the psychological bruising he took as a Test batsman last year.
Ultimately England were patient with Buttler during a tough Ashes series, but he lost his place following the two Tests against Pakistan and there’s seems to be insufficient evidence a recall is justified.
But what’s really troubling is the lack of clear alternatives beyond Buttler.
A number of possible candidates could be named – including Kent’s Sam Billings or Surrey’s Ben Foakes, who is often championed by Cricinfo’s George Dobell – but each comes with an ‘if’ and a ‘but’.
Billing’s has proven to be an effective one day batsman much like Buttler has, but many seem indifferent to his glove work. Likewise 23-year-old Foakes is showing great promise, but is still learning his craft at The Oval.
Middlesex’s John Simpson may be the strongest candidate thanks to his tidy glove work. Whilst he might only be seen as a moderate batsman compared to Bairstow and Buttler, it is his performance behind the stumps that should matter to England now.
It seems of little consequence if an England wicket keeper scores a half century or reaches three figures if they then miss the chance to stump Virat Kohli this winter, to coin the popular example.
The past 12 months have perhaps revealed just how much Matt Prior meant to England, and how many cracks his enforced retirement exposed. But England are deep enough at the top of the order to be able to carry someone who is stronger with the gloves than they are with the bat. And if Nick Compton is truly finished in the first XI, there’s an opening.
But the lack of a clear option should worry the selectors. We have a generation of very talented batsmen who happen to keep wicket, and have marginalised this specialist position to England’s detriment.