The era of the super-keeper

“He completely changed the way we looked at wicketkeepers. After his ascent, specialist wicketkeepers started taking a back seat and wicketkeepers who could contribute big runs with the bat came into prominence.”

Of all the great things which Adam Gilchrist achieved in the game, there can be few more influential things than the change he wrought in the role of the wicket keeper. As Kumar Sangakkara, one of Gilchrist’s contemporaries and a close friend noted, he completely changed the way we look at wicket keepers.

The measure of Gilchrist’s influence has been thoroughly evident recently. In South Africa AB De Villiers has continued to step seamlessly into the shoes of Mark Boucher behind the stumps with 17 catches in the series against Pakistan. It helps when you have bowlers as good as Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and in the final match Kyle Abbott to make the chances but De Villiers is snaffling them well. More importantly for the balance of the team is that his form with the bat has been unaffected, as he finished the season with two centuries, an average of 88 and a place at number five secured.

Meanwhile as South Africa were finishing off against Pakistan, MS Dhoni was compiling what was surely his finest ever innings as he scored his maiden double century and put India in a dominant position from where they can beat Australia. Dhoni’s qualities are well known, particularly in the shorter form, but here was a controlled, powerful display with the bat as he thrived against seam and particularly spin where he took apart Nathan Lyon repeatedly.

If Dhoni is considering giving up Test Cricket, which has long been mooted as a possibility, it would be a bitter shame because this was a captain’s knock of the highest calibre, riding to the rescue as his team tottered and then, Gilchrist-esque, turning the tables decisively.

What both these two and England’s Matt Prior (average 43, six centuries and general heartbeat of the team) have done, is made this the era of Test cricket the era of the super-keeper. It’s easy in a game with as rich and wondrous a history as cricket to fall into a “things ain’t as good as they used to be” mentality, but the truth is that in terms of wicket keeper-batsmen, “things have never been better” is a more fitting statement.

Of all the keepers with the highest average, these three occupy places within the top ten list who have played more than 20 innings as wicket keeper, headed by Andy Flower with Gilchrist, Les Ames, Sangakkara, Clyde Walcott surrounding them. Yet the point is that Test Cricket has seldom had the consistency of quality keeper-batsmen as we have now.

Flower and Gilchrist’s contemporaries included Junior Murray, Mark Boucher and Moin Khan, mainly wicket keepers than batsmen while Ames and Walcott both played at a time when few wicket keepers were expected to bat. Intriguingly two of the next three names on the list are recent wicket-keepers, Brad Haddin and Brendan McCullum, further underlining the point.

And it shows no sign of stopping. Australia have Matthew Wade playing for them, already a very accomplished batsman and a young player who ought to develop capably, while Tim Paine – also a capable batsman – also lies in wait providing he can keep his fingers free of damage. England have recently introduced Jos Buttler, more a batsman than a keeper, into international limited overs cricket while South Africa have done the same with Quinton de Kock.

In time we may come to view Gilchrist as something of a symbol of what was to come, a prototype. Because whereas once such batting exploits from wicket-keepers were something unique, judging by recent events, they have fast become the norm for his successors.

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Matt Prior’s Latest Hundred against Pakistan Proves His Worth to England Once Again

A Third Test Century for England's wicketkeeper

Once again a middle order batsman has stepped up to help steer England away from potential danger towards almost certain victory with a century. Where Eoin Morgan had his moment in the first innings, here it was Matt Prior’s turn to raise the bat.

Though he ended the day a hero, he was villain earlier in the day as hesitant calling from Prior saw Morgan run out with the score at 98-6 and whatever momentum England had built up was beginning to be halted by the clatter of wickets.

After Umar Gul swung hard earlier the day to avoid the follow on, including some mighty blows off Anderson and Finn, it was England’s turn to face the swinging ball with the Pakistan bowlers running riot.

The mood was set, as ever, by Mohammed Aamer who nipped out Andrew Strauss with a beauty, then Cook swiftly followed-strangled down the leg side.

After a bright respite from the steady Jonathan Trott and a recovering Kevin Pietersen, who showed signs of returning to form with some fine shots-including one lovely straight drive off Umar Gul.

Yet both men swiftly fell to the Pakistan fast bowler, Pietersen caught wonderfully by a diving Kamran Akmal off an inside edge and then Trott with a delivery which kept low.

Once Collingwood, fortunate to survive a first ball duck when Akmal dived too far and spilled an outside edge, fell LBW to Gul and after Prior and Morgan’s mix up, England were on course for a tough target but rocking along the way.

Yet up stepped Prior, all busy energy and capable stroke play, to steady the ship. Here was an innings which ought to have silenced any doubts, if any, about his worth to this team.

His batting was dogged, determined, yet not without flair-as shown by two big sixes off Kaneria to take him into the nineties. But more importantly was the way he manoeuvred England’s lower order towards a near impossible total for Pakistan to chase.

Hitting out for the hundred

Partnerships of 49 with Graeme Swann, 56 with Stuart Broad and 51 with last man Steven Finn were vital, and showed his ability not only to take a firm grip on proceedings, but keep the score rattling along at a rapid rate.

Only as he edged towards his hundred did he slow, as he crept cautiously towards the century-perhaps conscious that he had not scored one since March 2009.

Yet once the width was offered, a cut through gully brought him the three runs for his third Test hundred. As Strauss duly declared, with the lead now standing at a world record 435 runs, and given the calibre of the Pakistan batsmen and conditions of the Trent Bridge surface a certain victory.

England’s good form continued as Stuart Broad came to the party with two vital wickets and Anderson nipping out another one to leave Pakistan tottering at 15-3 at the close. Such a final flourish merely embellished Prior’s innings further.

Since Alec Stewart’s retirement England have searched desperately for a wicketkeeper batsman who can both keep soundly and score more than his fair share of runs, in Prior they have a man who ticks both boxes.

His keeping is now lithe and athletic to both seam and spin bowlers courtesy of hard yards put in with coach Bruce French, and he no longer betrays any of the technical deficiencies which marred his first foray into Test match cricket.

Meanwhile his batting, always his strongest suit, has never been doubted, despite a slight wobble in South Africa. A test match average over 40-still a lofty landmark in Test cricket-is hugely creditable and puts him up there with the best batsmen among England’s pantheon of wicketkeepers.

It seems almost strange to think that just weeks ago Craig Kieswetter was being tipped to force Prior out of the Test position given their recent turn of fortunes.

While Kieswetter searches vainly for a recovery of the form that made him such a force to be reckoned with in the T20 Championships, Prior continues to get stronger and stronger after scoring plenty in all forms for Sussex.

But as his latest hundred goes to show, when the pressure is on, Prior is more than capable of responding well.

As England continue on through this series, and then eventually towards the Ashes this winter, one suspects they will continue to appreciate the worth of their wicketkeeper batsman. On this evidence he won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

Matt Prior Is Proving His Point after England One Day Snub

Were England fans to name a potential Test XI for the Ashes opener in the winter then few, if any, would argue with the choice of Matt Prior behind the stumps. After years of chopping and changing in the wake of Geraint Jones’ slump in form, it is a strange, yet comfortable situation to be in.

Not that England are short of quality keepers, including Surrey’s Steven Davies, the aforementioned Jones who has enjoyed something of a batting renaissance, Essex’s James Foster and the rising star of England’s T20 victory Craig Kieswetter.

Proving a point to the England selectors

Yet such has been the form of Prior since his return to the England fold, with huge improvements in his wicket-keeping courtesy of sustained work with Bruce French complimenting a batting ability which is manifested in a more than satisfactory test average of 40.

But, the steady rise of Prior since his return to the team hit a snag, when he was dumped from the One Day and T20 teams in favour of Kieswetter.

The endorsement from Flower, who likened the Sussex player to Australian batsman Michael Slater, was hardly flattering, and Prior left with the words: “He has had a lot of opportunities up the order in one-day cricket and has not quite grasped them, and has consequently been playing a role in the middle order.”

That much is true, if the benchmark of a One Day International player is 30 games, then Prior at 55 international games ought to be settled-but his statistics (average 25, 2 fifties, 0 hundreds) do not bear this out. However in mitigation he has been shunted throughout batting line-up’s in various guises which has hardly helped his cause.

In truth the decision was as much an acknowledgement that Kieswetter, a bigger hitter of a ball-whereas Prior tends to be a much purer timer-fulfils the role of pinch-hitter at the top of the order with much greater authority than Prior does.

But such a stance has led some to speculate whether Prior’s long-term future as Test keeper may be under threat, however like he did when he was first dropped by England, Prior appears to have heeded the lessons and learnt quickly from them.

Upon his return to Sussex, where he has always fulfilled the role of pinch-hitting all-rounder with great aplomb, Prior has appeared right at home and taken on the mantle with genuine gusto-sending a message that perhaps England may yet rue dropping him so quickly.

In the T20 competition so far this year, he has scored 320 runs in eight innings-only nine runs behind David Hussey, the leading run scorer, having played two games less. Furthermore a strike-rate up near 180 shows he is more than capable of scoring the quick runs needed at the start of an innings. The highlight of his campaign so far was a thrilling 115 off just 55 balls against Glamorgan.

Clearly Prior is sending a message, and one he was more than happy to endorse when he spoke to Cricinfo this week, and said: “It’s a frustration because you want to be there but they’ve gone for a different balance with the wicketkeeper opening the batting and at the time I wasn’t opening.

“Now it’s down to me. I’m back opening in one-day cricket for Sussex, which I enjoy and it’s the most natural spot for me, and I have a lot belief in my ability. Now I’ve got to score a lot of runs and keep knocking on the door.

“I’ve known that if I want to be the England keeper I have to be the best out there, and if someone comes in a does better I have to raise my game.”

While England may be looking to stick with Kieswetter as wicket keeper/batsman for the foreseeable future, especially in light of their T20 success, few would doubt Prior will not be far behind.

And his recent form for Sussex suggests that, as he has throughout, Prior is intent on proving a point to the selectors.