Can Jones keep up with England?

Concerns are mounting about wicketkeeper's loss of form. Stephen Brenkley reports from Johannesburg
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The Independent Online

In a cramped stand, under baking sunshine at the St John's Recreation Ground in Antigua nine months ago, Michael Vaughan made a surprising announcement about his team. With England 3-0 up in the series against the West Indies, the captain said they had decided to drop their wicketkeeper, Chris Read, and to hand his place to Geraint Jones.

It demonstrated a ruthless streak which briefly halted the pens of Vaughan's audience. Read had kept wicket impeccably on some pitches with dodgy bounce, evoking comparisons with the most polished glovemen of yore. Vaughan, however, was unequivocal. Read had not made enough runs and Jones would now be given a run in the side.

This was a seminal change in selection strategy and it provoked a row. Vaughan and the coach, Duncan Fletcher, who instigated it, made the alteration without referral to the selectors back home, as they are entitled to do on tour. But Read was stipulated first choice, had done his craft proud and now here he was, after a run of nine games, out in the cold not only for one match but for the foreseeable future.

Much of this has sprung back to mind. England won a thrilling victory against South Africa at the Wanderers on Monday, but it was obvious that they did it despite and not because of Jones. True, he took the catch that finally settled the match but it was, like a Robert Harris thriller, unputdownable. It would be unkind and untrue to suggest that England dropped Read and since then Jones has dropped everything else, but in the fourth Test he made two howlers in the space of seven balls.

On Saturday evening, Jones bruised a thumb flinging himself to his left to stop something difficult which had gone down the leg side from Andrew Flintoff. The next ball, the penultimate of the day, he dived high to his right and palmed a catch offered by Herschelle Gibbs who was 136 not out at the time. It would have been just to the left of first slip.

On Sunday morning, in the first over of the day, Matthew Hoggard had Shaun Pollock leg before to his second ball before Jones grassed something much more straightforward to the fifth, an inside edge from the new batsman, Nicky Boje. Those errors cost England 69 runs, since Gibbs went on to make 161 and Boje, on four, went to 48. To justify his place as the superior batsman, Jones had to perform. He made 13.

Fletcher stoutly defended Jones yesterday. "If any player fails at any department of their game, you think about things. It adds a little bit of pressure but it is just like a batter who isn't scoring any runs. If you play badly you have to work a little bit harder, but if an individual goes and makes two ducks in a Test match does it suddenly become a problem?"

Throughout Jones' tenure, Fletcher has made it clear that he will sacrifice something in the wicketkeeping department for the extra runs. There is also just a suspicion that Read has never quite overcome a difficult start with Fletcher since he came as second keeper on the corresponding tour to South Africa five years ago. Two concerns have emerged: that the wicketkeeeping becomes so sporadic it affects the rest of the fielders and that it dents Jones' confidence so much that his batting suffers.

As a chap to have around, Jones is a little ray of sunshine and like the rest of this England squad is thoroughly likeable and approachable. But he has looked glum these past few days because he knows that he is in poor form.

In the 59 years since the great Godfrey Evans began his Test career, England have used 13 keepers who have played more than 10 matches. Only one (surprisingly, Paul Downton) has a lower byes ratio per 100 runs conceded than Read and only one (equally surprisingly, John Murray) has a higher ratio than Jones. Read's Test batting average is 15 and Jones' is still above 30, though it is 24 for the current series.

In his Test career, Jones has missed seven definite catching chances and one stumping costing a total of 143 runs, but he has made, in dashing style, 524. There is no easy answer to this (the phenomenal Australian Adam Gilchrist has changed everything), but a starting point could be a proper wicketkeeping coach. England have every other conceivable angle covered.

Fletcher said: "We talk about it and we work on his wicketkeeping, but a lot of the time it is a mental thing." This from a man who is one of the foremost spotters of small glitches in batting technique of this or any generation. Vaughan will probably not be making an announcement this match, but one thing is certain. Jones needs help.