By Nicholas Galea
To participate in the Ashes is the absolute pinnacle for every young Australian cricketer, and at the moment the Australian Test team has two positions up for grabs – the six and seven spots in the line-up.
Australia has had its fair share of talented wicketkeepers, most notably Ian Healy and his successor, Adam Gilchrist, who burst onto the scene in 1999 with a stunning maiden Test century during a three test series against Pakistan in Australia. Few could have predicted that by the end of his career, Gilchrist had completely changed the expectations and demands of wicket-keepers throughout world cricket.
Courtesy of his devastating batting, Gilchrist became a legend not only in Australia but to cricket fans and players all over the world. Gilchrist was the first of his kind as he revolutionised the role of the wicketkeeper – it became necessary to be an attacking weapon with the bat rather than someone who purely focused on their prowess behind the stumps.
Gilchrist averaged 48 in 96 Tests and made 17 hundreds for Australia, playing a key role in one of the greatest Test sides ever assembled.
— cricket.com.au (@CricketAus) November 2, 2017
Since his retirement, the Australian selectors have for a number of years searched for the ‘next Gilchrist’, believing that a wicketkeeper needed to have the ability to contribute some genuine lower-order runs and at times they found an adequate successor in Brad Haddin.
Haddin, who was 30 when he made his Test debut in 2008, averaged a touch under 33 in 66 matches and racked up four centuries; like Gilchrist – but never to the same blistering extent – he was a potential match-winner with the bat on his day.
Australia’s head coach, Darren Lehmann, also shares the belief that a keeper must be able to get runs – but first and foremost the priority was to find a quality performer behind the stumps.
Lehmann told Adelaide radio station FiveAA that “we always want the best gloveman.”
“‘Wadey’s’ (Matthew Wade) certainly improved his glovework, he just hasn’t made any runs for us,” the coach continued
“You’d love to have someone that averages over 30 at the moment. Our six and seven has really struggled in the past three or four years. That’s an area we know we need to improve on. Glovework is paramount still, as it normally always is, and then we want runs.”
Currently the Australian domestic competition, the Sheffield Shield, is bereft of quality wicketkeepers that can regularly perform at the crease.
Ashes candidates Matthew Wade, the incumbent, and Peter Nevill, who was axed after Australia’s Hobart debacle against South Africa last December,are seen as the most likely types that fit those requirements but both have had numerous opportunities and haven’t been able to nail down that Test position. Wade is seen as the better batsman and Nevill the better keeper, yet neither have displayed overwhelming on the international stage to back up those opinions.
THE CASE FOR EXPERIENCE
When Peter Nevill was called in to replace Brad Haddin for the second Ashes Test in 2015, it was on the back of strong form with bat and gloves for New South Wales over a number of years and he was seen as the logical replacement at the time.
Nevill made an instant impression, scoring 45 on debut and claiming seven catches to secure his spot for the remainder of the series and the Australian summer.
If Nevill were to be re-selected it would be a safe option: you know what you’re going to get with him, an assured wicketkeeper who has the capacity to bat at seven or higher and rarely has a poor performance. Despite making only the 51 runs in six innings on the diabolical tour of Sri Lanka in 2016, Nevill was one of the few Australians who tried to adapt to the conditions, facing the fifth-most deliveries.
Earlier this month Gilchrist revealed hethought that Nevill’s dropping from the Test team was a bit harsh, saying he would recall him.
”When that big cleanout happened last summer, I thought he was the victim of a poorly performed batting order,” Gilchrist said on FoxSports’ The Back Page.
“Wade came in because they wanted runs and they wanted voice behind the stumps .. I thought it was hard on Nevil to be dropped then.,”
Nevill has a first-class average of 40.03 and a Test average of 22.28 from 17 appearances, as well as 279 first-class keeping dismissals (264 catches and 15 stumpings).
— cricket.com.au (@CricketAus) November 4, 2017
After the disaster at Hobart against South Africa last summer, Matthew Wade was recalled to the Test side after displaying only modest form for Victoria and has been a constant in the starting 11since.
Wade was brought into the side to provide leadership to assist captain Steve Smith, a ‘mongrel’ attitude and character that had apparently been lacking in the line-up for an extended period of time, as well as his swashbuckling reputation with the bat, which would strengthen an failing middle order.
The first requirement has been passed with flying colours, but the second unfortunately hasn’t come forth as Wade has struggled for runs since his return, making only the 263 runs in 16 innings (three not outs) to average 20.23, a figure well below what was expected from him.
The former Victorian has improved his keeping skills since his first axing from the Test side in 2013 and had an acceptable tour of India earlier this year as he made four stumpings, highlighting his improved glovework. He also made some crucial lower-order runs to average 32.66 in extremely testing conditions.
Wade averages 28.58 in 22 Tests, but he boasts just two half-centuries – and 11 single-figure dismissals – in his last 19 innings at that level. Recent Shield performances haven’t done his case for retention many favours, either.
— ESPNcricinfo (@ESPNcricinfo) November 5, 2017
Despite Gilchrist advocating for Peter Nevill, he hopes that if the Australian selectors stick with Wade that they would back him in.
“With an ex-player’s cap on, I hope the selectors show him some faith and say ‘=You’ve got a few Ashes Tests here to go’.”
Tim Paine is another wicketkeeper whose name has been thrown up to potentially make a return to the Test arena after last playing for Australia in 2010 in India.
If not for a 148-kilometre-per-hour Dirk Nannes delivery during an All Stars T20 match which broke his index finger, leading to a number of surgeries and other finger related injuries, Paine could have already been a veteran of more than 50 Tests.
No one could ever question Paine’s ability with the gloves, such was the quality of his keeping before his injury. Tasmania believed that it made up for his lack of runs (one hundred in 121 first-class innings) for a number of Shield seasons. Unfortunately for Paine, his form in both areas have tapered off over the past three seasons (averaging 16.36 from 27 innings) so drastically that he has struggled to hold onto a regular spot in a struggling Tasmanian lineup.
THE KEEPERS IN WAITING
Some pundits think the best course of action is to utilise young gun Peter Handscomb as a ‘keeper-batsman’, but to do so would no doubt weaken Australia’s stability in its top order and potentially stagnate Handscomb’s promising batting ability.
The talented 10-Test batsman has ruled out wearing the gloves during the Ashes, revealing to SEN Breakfast that he sees himself as a full time batsman.
“I’m definitely not a Test wicketkeeper … it hurts too much to start with and I’d rather try to bat top four or top five and I think as a keeper you can’t do that,” Handscomb said.
— sportz247 (@sportz24x7) September 25, 2017
Since concentrating on becoming a full time batsmen in the 2014-15 Shield season, Handscomb has averaged 50.92 – compared to 30 when he kept part-time for Victoria from 2011-12 to 2013-14. Handscomb currently has two Test centuries and averages 53.07 in a bright start to his international career. Evidently, it is best to not tamper with a method Handscomb has struck gold with – Australia needs to let him continue to shine with the bat.
South Australian youngster Alex Carey is deemed by many as the most pure wicketkeeper currently in the Shield setup and has become an Ashes bolter after a breakout 2016-17 Sheffield Shield.
Carey broke the competition record for wicketkeeping dismissals with 57 catches and two stumpings last summer to help the Redbacks finish second to Victoria. Although you can’t doubt his reliability behind the stumps, it is his inconsistency in front of them that could hinder his chances of selection in the Test team.
— cricket.com.au (@CricketAus) November 5, 2017
In his first full Sheffield Shield season, the 26-year-old finished with 594 runs at an average of 33, and has an overall average of 24.54 from 34 first-class innings.
Whilst he is extremely tidy with the gloves (77 catches and two stumpings in 19 first-class matches), it is unlikely to be enough to secure him a Test spot. Carey has a highest first-class score of 79 and became the fourth Shield wicket keeper to achieve the 500 run and 50 dismissal double in a Shield season last season.
Yorkshire-born Sam Whiteman moved to Australia as a three-year-old and has represented Western Australia since 2012 as a wicketkeeper. He is definitely one to keep an eye on. Although he has under-delivered on his batting ability, an in-form Whiteman is seen as a potential option for the role of Test keeper.
Unfortunately, numerous injuries to his finger will prevent him from lining up for any form of cricket this summer. When fit, Whiteman has provided great balance to the Western Australia Warriors behind the stumps and has proven himself to be a genuine batting option at number six, capable of averaging 40 and thus allowing the Warriors flexibility to play an all-rounder in Ashton Agar or Mitchell Marsh at seven.
As a 22-year-old, Whiteman’s 2013-14 Shield season saw him finish with the sixth-most runs in the competition with 687 at 45.80 as well as 45 dismissals, the most for any keeper that season. We all know what he can bring to the pitch but it’s all about getting his body right for the time being before we reassess his Test credentials.
What ever happened to Sam Whiteman? Wasn’t he supposed to be the next big thing?
— Locky (@gillo35) October 30, 2017
Other candidates who have displayed promise include Western Australia’s Josh Inglis, Queensland’s Jimmy Peirson, Tasmania’s Jake Doran and Victoria’s Sam Harper, but all four are in the early stages of their domestic careers and have a long way to go before they should be on the national radar.
If Australia is to reclaim the Ashes, the best option is to pick and stick with its current Test keeper instead of throwing someone such as Alex Carey to the sharks during a fiery Ashes series, where experience matters and a record to back it up counts for Plenty.
Although Matthew Wade hasn’t been in the best batting form, he has previously displayed grit and fight on the international stage and should be given one last chance to establish himself as Australia’s number one wicketkeeper. If things should go awry, Peter Nevill must be the man to replace Wade, given his experience in the Test arena.
Sam Whiteman and Alex Carey need to continue to be patient – they have time on their side and are certain Test prospects in the near future.
Predicted Australian starting XI for the first Test against England, November 23 at the Gabba:
Statistics curtesy of Cricket Archive and Espncricinfo
Figures accurate prior to Round Two of the 2017-18 Sheffield Shield