Between 2009 and 2013, England enjoyed the luxury that was Matt Prior, picking the Sussex wicket keeper for almost every single test match played during those years. Prior ascended to the role of vice-captain before an achilles injury cut his career short in mid-2014, and his game changing, counter-attacking style of batting at number seven in the order enabled England to play without a genuine all-rounder during their golden era under Andy Flower. Prior averaged over 40 with the bat during his test career and his wicket keeping also improved immeasurably after he was recalled to the team in early 2009, making him one of the best if not the world’s best keeper-batsman for a time.
However times have changed, and since Prior was originally dropped during the ill-fated Ashes tour of Australia in late 2013 Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler have both donned the gloves, neither with enough success to end debate about the position in both the short and long term. Both have appealing attributes with the bat; Buttler has played a number of influential innings in the shorter formats of the game, albeit not recently, while Bairstow comfortably passed 1,000 first class runs last summer despite featuring in only half of Yorkshire’s Championship fixtures. Yet both have serious flaws with the gloves, and this has served to exaggerate criticism over their place in the team when either has suffered a barren run with bat in hand.
Both Bairstow and Buttler remain fine fielders, which makes it even more frustrating when they make the occasional mistake with the gloves on, but ultimately it is their performances with the bat that have led to England’s current wicket keeping dilemma. In 34 test innings Bairstow averages 26.40, while Buttler averages 30 after 24 knocks. As a point of comparison, over a decade ago the silk gloved James Foster mustered an average of 25.10 in his 12 test innings, while providing far better work with the gloves than the current Bairstow and Buttler combination.
This begs the question; would England be best served by returning to a specialist keeper? Perhaps the answer is yes, but the options in the county game are few and far between. Foster himself still captains Essex, but he will turn 36 before next summer begins and has played his first class cricket in division two during recent seasons. Chris Read, another excellent gloveman who never quite made the test grade with the bat, is 37 and his ship has also sailed. Younger ‘keepers of prominence include Ben Foakes of Surrey and Sam Billings of Kent, and they would appear to be the next two cabs off of the proverbial rank. Foakes has appeared on multiple England Lions tours and averages 36 in first class cricket, while Billings has been capped at ODI level by England. Billings possesses a first class average of just 31, however, and Foakes only kept wicket on a semi regular basis for Surrey in 2014 thanks to the presence of captain Gary Wilson.
Ultimately, it figures that both Bairstow and Buttler will be given at least one more opportunity each before anyone else is given a go by Trevor Bayliss, but both will be aware that with James Taylor’s emergence alongside Joe Root in the middle order that the only way either of them will find a way into the side is by assuming the gloves. England will need at least one to finally come of age in the test arena if they’re to adequately replace Prior, and in the process plug the huge gap that has emerged in the lower middle order.