Cricket: Piper's autumn fanfare

Stephen Brenkley says Lord's will see a keeper back to his best in today's final
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The Independent Online
Nobody has yet invented a better way of infusing a cricket team with desire than a wicketkeeper who is happy in his work. Lord's today should therefore parade two sides who might be hungrier than usual to lay their hands on the NatWest Trophy. Behind the stumps will be two jaunty, spring-heeled exponents of the delicate craft who contrive to make jack- in-the-boxes look sluggish.

The old adage about wicketkeepers has it that the best ones are barely noticeable as they go smoothly, unobtrusively about their duties. Paradoxically, it is difficult to take the eyes off either Warwickshire's Keith Piper or Robert Rollins of Essex. They are infectiously bouncy, perpetually enthusing their colleagues, constantly part of the game. Yet they have velvet gloves.

Piper and Rollins are two of the smartest wicketkeepers in England. Both of them have also failed so far to bat as their promise and potential indicates they should and both are coming to the end of a difficult summer. The NatWest Trophy final presents belated opportunities to ensnare silverware and perhaps selectorial attention.

While wicketkeeping places in the England senior squad are probably spoken for - Alec Stewart and Jack Russell have prior claims - the need to find a successor soon through the A team grows more pressing. Piper and Rollins possess the quickness of reflex and the sureness of touch to assure them earnest consideration.

Three years ago Piper looked to be more a probable than a possible. He had overcome a tendency to collect hand injuries and after significant contributions to Warwickshire's Championship seasons in 1994 and 1995 he went on two A tours. His progress since has hardly been unimpeded and this year it had seemed to come to a halt. Injury in the opening match and a long lay-off were followed by a positive drugs test which revealed traces of cannabis in his system. He was banned for a match. September, however, finds him characteristically perky.

"I had just about written this season off but a Lord's final is always a chance to perform and impress," he said. "I think I may have left it a bit late to get a place on a tour but this is a chance to remind the selectors what I can do. I don't think there's anything wrong with my keeping. I think I'm right up there.

"It was a pretty gloomy time for me early on. I got injured in May and the diagnosis was a back injury. It didn't get much better and then it was discovered that the Achilles heel was the problem. The pain was shooting up the right side of my body. Then came the cannabis thing. I probably deserved a heavier punishment than I got. It was a stupid thing to do but the club and the rest of the players were tremendously supportive."

These little difficulties meant that the guarantee Piper was given in the spring about batting number six or seven (in a Warwickshire side replete with batsmen capable of holding down either position) ran out. It has frustrated him.

"I know to get further I've got to be able to bat but going in at nine or ten doesn't really help me to do that. It's frustrating, but I've just got to put up with it, try to make out there and get up the order." His unbeaten 34 at Chester-le-Street last week was his highest score of the season, which demonstrated his problem. But it took three hours on a difficult pitch, gave Warwickshire vital extra runs and thus demonstrated that he has not forgotten how to bat.

At 27, Piper is aware that to find the next England keeper the selectors may play the old trick of skipping a generation. While he is not himself a fully paid-up member of the Rollins fan club he admires Paul Nixon's all- round abilities and, perhaps pertinently, has glowing words for England Under-19s' Chris Read. "Did you see two of those catches he took against Zimbabwe? Fantastic," he said.

But Piper's more immediate challenger for higher honours may still be 23-year-old Rollins. The Essex wicketkeeper has struggled for form and fitness this season. A persistent finger injury, which has jarred constantly, may need an operation. Until last week when he, too, struck some sort of fluency with the bat by making 60 against Lancashire, runs had been a rare commodity.

But Rollins, like Piper, has kept going and kept bouncing. He shows a wonderful ability to improvise under one-day pressure. Some of his strokes are outrageous but they can garner swift, invaluable late-order runs. It is doubtful if either will have a decisive influence on events at Lord's today. But they will be a constant presence, gathering, cajoling, smiling. And there is always the chance of a spectacular, memorable catch or two.

Warwickshire claim to be setting little store by their dismantling of Essex in both the Championship and the Sunday League last weekend.

Quite right as well, but it will have done no harm either. Warwickshire to win, Rollins to tour.