It is the convention in English cricket to doubt the credentials of the wicketkeeper of the day. There is usually a honeymoon period, sometimes of up to two matches, and then the distrust sets in.
More than any other position in the team, there is always somebody better who is not in favour with the selectors. Welcome to the club, Steven Michael Davies, once of Worcestershire, lately of Surrey and England.
Davies is 24 and in the embryonic stages of his international career. He came into county cricket when he was 18 and assumed the gloves from the long-serving Steve Rhodes. It was pretty clear from an early stage that he could keep properly and knew which end of the bat to hold. Down the line he was always certain to give the selectors pause for discussion.
Through no fault of his own – except that he is not making enough runs, which wicketkeepers have to do, and he is not making the ones he gets well enough – Davies has backed the selectors into a tight corner. He has also reignited the convention. All manner of wicketkeepers will soon be named who might supposedly do it better. The World Cup, that traditional festival where England turn up only to turn round and go home as if they were there for the tax break, is 31 days away. England's squad of 15 will be named tomorrow. Davies will be in it. Should he be?
He was given his opportunity as opening batsman and keeper in the one-day side at the beginning of the series against Pakistan last September. It was a calculated gamble then and while the selectors knew it, they felt they had to act. In doing so, they were already pencilling in Davies' name for the World Cup, although he was in effect an unknown international quantity. He had 12 matches – six to go – to prove them right before their opening match of the tournament.
It all began so well with a well-constructed 87 from 67 balls at the Riverside. He looked so much the part in a serene, seamless innings. Yet on Sunday in Melbourne he scored 42 in England's six-wicket defeat without hitting a ball cleanly. He might have been out four times; indeed he was out once and on his way before being called back by the umpire who wished to check whether Brett Lee had bowled a no-ball. He had.
Since that innings in Durham, his scores have been 26, 18, 49, 17 and 42. He has usually scored at some lick but he has never looked as controlled as he was in that initial innings, clearly anxious and under instruction to make the most effective use of the powerplays but not quite sure how that might be achieved.
Davies is a willing victim of the modern obsession to make all one-day wicketkeepers into opening batsmen. England have been following it since Alec Stewart, an underrated cricketer in his day who can now be seen for the excellent all-rounder he was, performed the task so admirably. Stewart kept wicket 138 times in ODIs for England and no matter where he flung himself he never had a speck of dust on his flannels.
He scored four centuries as an opening batsman while doing the glovework. Since his retirement after the 2003 World Cup, nine players have kept wicket for England in one-dayers but only one, Craig Kieswetter, in Chittagong early last year, has done likewise. It could be said that Stewart spoilt it for everybody else, rather as Adam Gilchrist has for his successors in Australia where the convention is about to take similar hold.
Of the naughty nine to have followed the pristine Stewart, five have been selected as opener. It was an experiment that tried and failed with Geraint Jones, who was elevated seven times in his 48 limited-overs innings. Phil Mustard, who opened in all his 10 matches, scored 83 in the penultimate and, although rough around some considerable edges, might have been a trifle unlucky to be so quickly discarded.
Matt Prior was the one in whom most time and effort was invested but two fifties in 50 one-day innings, 27 as opener, tell their own story. Somehow, Prior never translated his belligerent shot-making into substantial runs and, like Davies is beginning to do, too often got out having got in.
When the selectors lost faith with Prior for the second time, they turned not to Davies, who might have received the nod then, but to the recently qualified South African Kieswetter. It so happened that Kieswetter hit a rich vein of form and it so happened too that the selectors were ensnared by it. In he came as opener, with Prior oddly staying as keeper for a while, and he was immediately assertive.
Kieswetter also rode his luck but, as last summer wore on, he lost form badly. The selectors felt they had to act. They could have chosen Prior again but Davies had come through the system and he was also having a rampant first season for Surrey. At the start of the season, Davies carried their batting with seven fifties in his first 12 innings while the rest played like fools, and he was promoted to opening the innings.
In the Clydesdale Bank League he was equally effective with 478 runs, the fifth-highest aggregate in the country, with a stroke rate of 128. He deserved his international opportunity. Nor, incidentally should his wicketkeeping be easily overlooked. It is neat and tidy, and since he made his debut in June 2005 his proportion of dismissals per innings in the County Championship is greater than that of any other keeper.
Davies is not as vibrant as some, and though he has become noisier, he is diffident by nature. When he first came to attention the then chairman of selectors, David Graveney, remarked that he was as quiet as a pussycat behind the stumps. If he is louder, he is no Prior and he cannot quite match Prior either for sprinting between his marks at the end of an over.
Australia have their own difficulties. Brad Haddin, the poor sap who had to succeed Gilchrist (16 ODI hundreds, lest you forget) is under pressure from the precocious Tim Paine, who is suddenly being billed as a future captain. The other night Haddin responded by missing three stumpings and, although he made some runs, he did not so with his usual stamp.
It is too late for England to look beyond Davies for this World Cup. Last time they made a late, panic-stricken but partially rewarded change of direction by calling up the veteran Paul Nixon for his debut at the age of 36 in the Australian one-day matches which as usual preceded the tournament. Nixon batted at seven and eight with consummate effectiveness. Davies needs some runs in the next fortnight.
Watson helps lift spirits in hometown
Australian all-rounder Shane Watson bowled in a game of street cricket in his hometown of Ipswich, Queensland, yesterday. The town has been hit hard by recent floods but Watson, who hit a match-winning 161 not out against England on Sunday, is optimistic about the future. "Ipswich people are tough people," he said. "Everyone will come together to help out."