Cricket is a game that generates lists and records beyond any other.
Today’s relates to English wicketkeeper-batsmen. Look at the top eight highest scores by an English keeper in Test cricket and only three names come to light. Two of them were at Lord’s on Friday.
Les Ames, who died in 1990, appears three times, Alec Stewart twice and now, after ending up on 167 not out, Jonny Bairstow makes his third appearance. The Yorkshire keeper now finds himself in exalted company as he dovetails with Stewart at the top of the list. Here at Lord’s he could not quite surpass Stewart’s 173 against New Zealand at Auckland in 1997, though he might have done if he had been a little more ambitious towards the end of an innings that somehow decelerated as time went by. Geoff Boycott had told him to cash in before the start of play and Bairstow duly obliged.
Between the wars Ames of Kent kept in all but three of his 47 Tests; the roles of Stewart and Bairstow were not always as clear-cut. Stewart and Bairstow unlike Ames, began their Test careers as batsmen and were handed the gloves later on.
This is Bairstow’s 27th Test; he has kept wicket in 10 of them. Stewart appeared in a record 133 Tests, keeping wicket 82 times.
Stewart was looking on Friday in generous mood. He would not have minded if his first position on the list had been overtaken and, when Bairstow dropped Dimuth Karunaratne on 28, a catch which, to an untutored eye, was an absolute sitter, he was sympathetic. “This is Lord’s,” said Stewart. “The ball can dip and swing deviously here after it has passed the bat. You have to get your head behind the ball and catch it late – like a batsman playing late against a swing bowler.” Perhaps it was not quite such a simple catch but once a member of the keeper’s union always a member.
Stewart explained how his situation throughout his 14 years as an international cricketer – from October 1989 to September 1993 – was different from Bairstow’s. “If it had been purely my choice I would have liked to open the batting throughout my career and not kept wicket,” he said. “I think it weakened one of our strengths when I had to drop down the order – so that we could strengthen one of our weaknesses.”
Stewart was at his most potent against the new ball and he explained how it was physically impossible to open the batting and keep wicket on a permanent basis. But there was a dearth of all-rounders in his era and Stewart was eventually required to be the regular keeper. “Don’t get me wrong,” said Stewart, “I enjoyed keeping, especially when I knew that this was going to be my role.”
He recalled that the first time he was told that he was the keeper at the start of a series was in the winter of 1996-97 when England toured Zimbabwe and New Zealand.
Before then he kept as an emergency measure in order to rebalance a side that was usually behind. Only then was he able to refine the keeping skills, which helped to ensure his longevity. But he preferred starting his innings against a hard ball and that was when he was most influential as a batsman.
It is different with Bairstow, who has grown tired of telling us that he actively wants to keep wicket for England. He has always batted around No5 and he has kept for Yorkshire in the vast majority of games since his first-class debut in 2009. For him, as opposed to Stewart at the top of the order, there is no conflict of interest. In fact having two roles can act as a handy insurance policy. Bairstow averages 62 with the bat when keeping in Test cricket as opposed to 28 as a specialist batsman. In part this is simply because he has matured as a cricketer but having all-round status allows more freedom when at the crease.
Currently Bairstow could be inked into the team purely as a specialist batsman, which must be a reassuring state of affairs for him. However, to retain the gloves on the permanent basis he craves, he cannot allow many more “sitters” – with apologies to Stewart and the union – to end up on the grass.
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