Cricket: Read the natural settles into a new habitat

Stephen Brenkley discovers that an innate ability has found a home on the testing stage
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The Independent Online
CHRIS READ came to wicketkeeping late in his cricket career. He had been playing regularly for five years when he decided that he probably would not make it as a bowler and was decidedly tired of hanging round in the field for interminable overs. He was 11.

"I looked about six at the time," he said last week, looking about 12. "I'd been playing for Devon schools for a few seasons as a batsman. The games were getting longer and I just thought this fielding thing was getting a bit much. The way it turned out I had a natural talent for wicketkeeping."

So natural that nine years on, in the First Test against New Zealand at Edgbaston, he made his debut for England. He was 20 years and 325 days old, the national side's youngest wicket-keeper of the century. He took eight catches in the match, the most formidable achievement by any debutant keeper.

If there was an air of inevitability about Read appearing for England (though perhaps not at such an indecently young age), it may be a surprise to know that he did not decide finally to stick with keeping until three years ago. He had done the job since taking the fateful decision to abandon life in the outfield but was still fairly confident he could make it in the game as a batsman alone.

He was opening for Paignton first team as a teenager and although he went in at No 11 when he was picked for Devon at 16 ("I think they might have been trying to reinforce the point that I was in for the keeping"), he was still uncertain. The England Under-19 tour to Pakistan in 1996- 97 was the clincher. Read made strides as a stumper and knew it.

It is this combination of batting and keeping which augurs so well for England. Read did not make an impression with the bat on Edgbaston's mean pitch - "I pushed at it a bit, looked a bit tight" - but if anything persuaded the selectors to opt for him now it was the 160 he made for Nottinghamshire earlier in the season.

This is his second summer with the county and his move there demonstrates his quiet determination. He had been signed by Gloucestershire in 1997 and was picked for an England A tour that winter. But his chances of first-team action were to be limited by Jack Russell's presence and when Russell was offered a four-year contract Read decided he had to go.

It turned out to be some tour. Read made his first-class debut in Kenya of all places and came home as a Nottinghamshire player. The move, apart from giving him first-team cricket more quickly, brought him into regular contact with Bruce French, the former Nottinghamshire and England keeper who would have won a barrel full of caps had his batting been slightly more proficient.

"He has definitely helped me with lots of things," said Read, like getting down to practice for a start. There have been times when I've come in for nets and haven't felt like doing much but Bruce has put me through a hard session and by the end of it you know it's been worth it. It was quite amusing when he asked me the other day if I wanted him around any more now I'd played for England. I told him not to be so daft."

Another of Read's mentors is Alan Knott. There are fundamental differences in the styles of Knott and Read. The former liked to take the ball low and stood well back; Read prefers to take it at waist height, and his first slip seems a touch wider.

"I think every keeper is different. Knotty has never tried to change anything like that, he's always told me to stand where it feels comfortable for me. That was quite funny as well when I asked him about how to take the moving ball. He said he couldn't give me any advice because the ball didn't wobble when he was keeping."

It seems that a change in the ball a few years back transformed the lives of the men behind the timbers. Pitches and conditions of the type seen at Edgbaston on Read's debut took that a stage further. But he revels in such challenges and his sure, giving hands and economy of movement to match will help him to overcome most of them.

He made mistakes at Edgbaston, though not as many as some curmudgeonly judges would have us believe. He moved with assurance when standing back, and did not dive needlessly, though he promises that he is capable of getting his pads scruffy with the best of them. On the first day, he was slightly ragged while standing up to Phil Tufnell but that was more to do with his unfamiliarity with the bowler and his methods rather than any general uncertainty.

"It is much more enjoyable keeping in England than anywhere else I've been really," he said. "The A tour to Zimbabwe was a case in point. I certainly wouldn't want to upset an emerging cricketing nation but keeping wicket on their pitches is fairly mundane."

Read is not, or at least not yet, of the vociferous wicketkeeping breed. "I encourage but I haven't got a loud voice. I'm not sure it can be heard at third man." But he started late, don't forget. He has a decade or so to learn.