This giant-killing business is not confined to football. In the past week, the England cricket team have been walloped by Wales, the Indians have crumbled to Kent, the West Indies have been terrorised in Barbados by a fast bowler from New Zealand, and Australia have lost a home one-day series to Pakistan – although the Aussies may not consider it a series on the grounds that it was not ludicrously drawn-out. With eight months to go till the World Cup, this is the moment to check the odds on Namibia making the Super Six.
Perhaps the most unexpected turning worm of all has come from within the domestic game. Just when everything seemed to be going so smoothly, on the Test front at least, the England management has received a stinging rebuke from a group of people who are normally silent apart from the odd overheard yell of "I like it!" or "Bowlin' Browney!" – the nation's wicketkeepers.
In a poll conducted by Wisden Cricket Monthly, the gloves have come off. Asked to name the best exponent of their craft in England, the keepers caused a landslide: Jack Russell received 15 votes, Alec Stewart 3, Keith Piper of Warwickshire 2 and Warren Hegg of Lancashire 1. The one keeper with an England Test contract this summer, James Foster of Essex, did not get a mention.
The poll is significant because wicketkeeping is the most peculiar of cricket's arts. Bowlers have to work batsmen out, and batsmen have to work bowlers out, but the little man in whose hands the ball ends up is studied only by his peers. Batsmen and bowlers receive attention in proportion to their excellence; with keepers, it is in proportion to their failings.
No wicketkeeper has become the England coach, although Rod Marsh must be in with a shout next time, if he is interested. More scandalously, England do not employ a wicketkeeping coach. You can hear the apoplexy in Russell's voice when he tells WCM: "It's just so unprofessional that they'll spend £40m on administration but they won't spend a few thousand on a keeping coach."
For a generation, no English wicketkeeper has even become a regular commentator on the game. The player-correspondents are all former bowlers; columnists tend to be batsmen, or county captains; television regulars can be any of the above, but an unwritten rule states that they may not be keepers unless they are called Ian and come from the Antipodes.
If the England wicketkeeping spot is uncontroversial at the moment, that is partly down to short-memory syndrome. Alec Stewart hit a fine, series-sealing hundred in the last Test, so the debate is closed. But you do not need to look very much closer to see that England have got their wickies in a twist.
There has been no clear policy since Russell, offended by an instruction to dump his heroically dog-eared hat, retired from international cricket in April 1998 – a decision which never exuded an air of permanency. Stewart has been the first choice ever since, except for the Test series against New Zealand in 1999 (Chris Read), the one-dayers in South Africa and Zimbabwe that winter (Read again), and the beginning of this summer (Foster).
It is settling on an understudy that has been the problem. In 1998-99, it was Warren Hegg (who played two Tests, freeing Stewart to bat at his best against Australia for once), in 1999-2000 Read, in 2000-01 Paul Nixon, then Hegg again, along with Foster – and do not forget Marcus Trescothick, who, to England's shame, was handed the gloves for the one-day series in New Zealand four months ago. And all this from a regime which preaches continuity.
The irony is that while the selectors have looked this way and that, they have missed out on the best years of Russell's career. Left to his own devices, Russell has reinvented himself and redefined wicketkeeping, standing up to the Gloucestershire medium-pacers and converting the job from defence to attack. When they won five one-day trophies in two years, he was their midfield general. He is also a more-than-handy batsman whose runs count double because he is so maddening. Never mind wicketkeeper – he is probably the best one-day player in the country.
If England were determined to use their wicketkeeping resources to the full, they would add Russell to the NatWest Series squad (allowing him to wear whatever hat he likes) and sign him up for all the one-dayers in the winter – the mini World Cup in Sri Lanka in September, the annual trudge round Australia, and the World Cup itself. So what if he is rising 39 – Bob Taylor was older than that when he played more than half his 57 Tests.
Stewart could then be saved for the Test side. In an ideal world, he would play against Australia as a top-order specialist batsman – he averages 36 with the bat in Ashes cricket when not keeping, and 27 when lumbered with the gloves. In the real world, he will remain the keeper, and his partnership with Andrew Flintoff at six and seven gives England at least a chance of matching Martyn and Gilchrist.
Meanwhile, someone has to be groomed to take over. It could be Foster, who has the balls and the batting ability, even if he can't yet be relied on to catch a sitter. It could be Piper, whom Russell chose in the poll. It could be anybody as long as he is the best.
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