January 10, 2008 / 12:14 AM / 10 years ago

Old cricket debate takes offbeat twist

LONDON (Reuters) - A long-standing debate about the merits of wicketkeeper-batsmen took an offbeat twist last week when Matt Prior was dropped from the England test side.

<p>Dwayne Bravo (R) of the West Indies hits a six off Monty Panesar as England's wicketkeeper Matt Prior watches during the fourth day of their second test cricket match at Headingley in Leeds, May 28, 2007. REUTERS/Phil Noble</p>

Although averaging 40.14 in 10 tests with the bat, Prior paid the price for fallible keeping in a losing series in Sri Lanka and will miss next month’s tour to New Zealand.

Chairman of selectors David Graveney was unable to contact Prior to tell him personally that he had been dropped because his mobile phone number had changed. To add to Graveney’s discomfort, the player’s agent could not help.

Prior’s agent is Alec Stewart, third in a triumvirate of distinguished England wicketkeeper-batsmen, and, apart from failing to locate the Sussex player, a man of renowned efficiency. Since Stewart retired in 2003, England have tried and rejected three successors, even though Graveney hinted that Prior’s exile might be temporary.

In the 1930s, Les Ames was a cultured batsman skilled enough to play test cricket as a specialist. Taking the gloves at a time when runs from a keeper were regarded as an unexpected bonus, he averaged 40.56 in 47 tests and compiled 102 first-class centuries.

Alan Knott, another man of Kent, averaged 32.75 and scored five centuries in a career stretching from 1967 to 1981. As a pure wicketkeeper he was the best of the three and maybe the best ever.

Stewart was a wonderful attacking opening bat at the start of the 1990s, as twin centuries against West Indies in Barbados testify. Unselfishly he agreed to take the gloves for most of his career, dropping down the order and averaging 34.92 while keeping wicket.

STRONGER SIDE

Since the 1960s, the days of specialist wicketkeepers have been numbered and now all test nations expect their keepers to function as all-rounders. The dilemma is where to strike the balance.

Stewart, like West Indian Jeff Dujon who was also given the gloves and shunted down the order during the 1980s, was athletic standing back and adequate standing up. Overall, England were a stronger side when he kept wicket.

Prior scored a century on debut against West Indies last year and played two gusty innings in Sri Lanka, tallying 562 runs overall.

However, according to statistics compiled in the Sunday Times, he has dropped 10 catches in as many matches which have cost his side 350 runs. Half the catches have been spilled off left-arm paceman Ryan Sidebottom, exposing a technical failing to deliveries moving sharply to Prior’s right.

Geraint Jones, one of the 2005 Ashes heroes, looked the part for a while with quick-footed batsmanship and safe if not assured keeping. Although never a natural keeper he clung on to his chances but his batting form and confidence disintegrated.

Chris Read was a classy keeper but, although he looked capable of better things, he averaged only 18.94 and was never rated by former coach Duncan Fletcher.

Now the search goes on with the untried Tim Ambrose (first-class average 34.87) and Phil Mustard (27.36) traveling to New Zealand for a three-test series.

If England are to make a convincing challenge for the Ashes at home next year, the role of wicketkeeper-batsman must be filled by a credible candidate.

Editing by Clare Fallon

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