Throughout sport, there are sides that enjoy periods of absolute dominance for years on end. Yet all these sides, sooner or later, crumble and become weak. I would argue that the English Test cricket team from 2009-2012 was one of these sides. During this period, the side dominated Test cricket, winning a home and an away Ashes, whitewashing India 4-0 and becoming the number one Test team in the world.
However, in the summer of 2012, South Africa beat England 2-0 on English soil and knocked England from the top spot. As this period of success in English cricket closed, players left, notably Andrew Strauss. What’s more, the form of certain players came under intense scrutiny, one of these players was Matt Prior, England’s long standing wicket keeper.
Prior has been a constant figure for the Test team from around 2007. Recently however, due to age and injury troubles Prior’s standards have slipped, there is no doubt about this. For example, after taking a career high of seven Test stumpings in 2012, Prior has failed to record a single Test stumping since.
Perhaps the most evident indication of Prior’s drop in form behind the stumps came when he was left out of the first team during the away Ashes series of 2013, as England searched for alternative keepers. If we examine the alternatives though, it becomes apparent that despite a drop in form, Prior still remains the number one keeper in England, which must worry England fans given his recent poor form.
The two most obvious alternatives would be Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow. Buttler has impressed for England in the limited overs formats, especially for the Twenty20 side with the bat, where he has a strike rate of over 143 and an average of 72*. Bairstow too has been part of the England setup before, notably as a bit part player for the Test team in recent years.
Yet neither are desirable alternatives. Bairstow is hardly a born keeper, more of a batsman –turned-keeper, manifested in order to fulfil a need. Buttler in comparison is more of a natural keeper, however, on average he has taken just 1.84 catches per game in first class cricket. When you compare that to Prior’s average of 2.56, it becomes clear that Prior would be your preferred keeper, any day of the week.
My Nouse colleague Beth, also known as the girl who has an extremely unhealthy obsession with Craig Kieswetter, would throw said man into the ring to become England’s new Test keeper. You can see why. His first class catching average behind the stumps is an impressive 2.86, much higher than Buttler’s and a little higher than Prior’s. In terms of runs, he can also deliver. He has a modest ODI average of 30.11 and a first class average of just under 40.
However, I still feel the man to persist with in the short term is Prior. Indeed, it will be interesting to see how Buttler performs on the Test stage, perhaps he will flourish. However, if Prior can overcome his troublesome injuries, I feel that he would continue to be an asset to this England team and would merit selection over Buttler.
His Test batting average is just over 40 and although he is out of knick, he has proven Test quality with both the bat and the gloves. Furthermore, his years of Test experience will prove useful during these somewhat turbulent times in the England dressing room. Kieswetter could also come in and do a job, certainly, but in my opinion neither he nor Buttler are long term solutions to English cricket’s keeping woes.
The issue at the moment is that we are trying to mould good batsmen into keepers. Recently, more batsmen have been told to take up the gloves in order to cement a regular starting spot in the team. It should be the other way round. Our junior coaching system should be identifying young talented keepers and helping to develop their batting. In a Test side, there are usually six other guys who are in the team just for their batting; it shouldn’t be the keeper’s responsibility to score the majority of the runs.
In my opinion, regardless of how obvious this sounds, we should be training keepers to primarily keep wicket, not to score runs. So for the time being, I think England should experiment with alternatives like Buttler, but return to Prior if he proves his fitness. Prior has the experience, a proven track record in Test cricket and hopefully his form will improve when he returns to full fitness.
In the long term, hopefully our junior coaching system can produce a truly exceptional keeper, who with a bit a fine tuning, can also do a good job with the bat.