England will continue with their search for the impossible in Hamilton next week when Tim Ambrose makes his debut in the first Test against New Zealand. Ever since Australia's Adam Gilchrist began flogging Test bowling attacks in 1999, international sides have wanted a wicketkeeper who is capable of scoring hundreds and averaging more than 35 with the bat. England hope that Ambrose is the man.
Many stumpers revel in the fact that they now hold a high profile and extremely responsible position in the side, a predicament highlighted at the recent Indian Premier League auction when Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Kumar Sangakkara, Brendon McCullum and Gilchrist were among the most expensive players sold. In the past wicketkeepers were looked upon as quiet, rather inconsequential figures, whose sole job was to catch the ball when it came their way. It could be said the art was taken for granted. Now they are at the hub of everything that goes on, cheerleaders who keep the team on their toes even when the opposition are on top.
Yet an equal number believe that Gilchrist's all-round brilliance has had a detrimental affect on the breed. To them, a wicketkeeper is a specialist, a player who should be judged and selected for his glovework alone. Sadly, it is no longer the case. Modern wicketkeepers have to be able to bat well. They have to be flexible, too. Stumpers are expected to offer support to and build partnerships with top-order batsmen, then smash the ball to all parts when they are batting with the tail. More often than not, greater emphasis is placed on their ability to hit rather than catch the ball.
Finding a Gilchrist is nigh on impossible. For most of his Test career he averaged more than 50 with the bat, scoring at almost a run a ball. He, like Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, was a once-in-a-century cricketer. What England would settle for is an Alec Stewart, and it is his position the selectors have found hardest to fill since his retirement in 2003.
Chris Read, Geraint Jones and Matthew Prior have all attempted to fill the void left by Stewart but, as yet, none of them has looked convincing. Ambrose owes his selection to an outstanding season with Warwickshire last year, when he was the county's top run scorer in each form of cricket, amassing 1,762 runs in total. The Australian-born stumper replaces Prior who, ironically, was the reason why Ambrose left Sussex in 2005. Sussex preferred Prior as a wicketkeeper to him, a decision that forced the 25-year-old to move to the Midlands in search of first-team opportunities.
"Tim is a good, honest worker, he gets stuck in," said the England opener, Andrew Strauss. "I thought his keeping against the Otago Invitation XI on Tuesday was very good and he has shown the ability to score runs at first-class level. We are always looking for that very good keeper who can bat pretty well. It is not an easy task but, having witnessed his mental make-up and character, he is well placed to deal with those pressures.
"The hard thing for a wicketkeeper is that, unless you are batting really well and keeping really well, your place is always being talked about. With most all-rounders, if you are doing one of the two jobs well, your spot in the side is all right, whereas a keeper has to be doing both jobs well all the time, and that is an extra pressure.
"But that is the challenge of the job," Strauss added. "The likes of Gilchrist have raised the bar and countries have got to follow suit. There is no point in thinking, 'We will just stick with what we used to do in the past', because you have got to keep moving forward in cricket."
Stewart was the best all-rounder English cricket produced between Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff. During his 13 years as an England player he made 133 Test appearances for England, scoring 8,463 runs at an average of 39.54. Stewart was not initially picked for England as a wicketkeeper: it was as a specialist batter that he made his debut in 1990.
The first time Stewart kept wicket for England was in his 11th Test and I was the reason. Jack Russell was England's designated keeper for the 1990-91 Ashes and he kept in the first three Tests, brilliantly stumping Dean Jones down the leg side when standing up to Gladstone Small in Sydney. I missed the third Test in Sydney with a hip injury but the selectors wanted me to play in the next one at Adelaide, where England had to win to keep the series alive. There was risk attached to playing me so, as cover, England picked a five-man bowling attack. If Russell played, England would have fielded only five specialist batsmen, so in an effort to balance the side Stewart took the gloves.
England had tinkered with the idea of picking the better batsman to keep wicket before then when Alan Knott was unavailable, selecting Roger Tolchard, Paul Downton and David Bairstow ahead of Bob Taylor in the late Seventies and early Eighties, but Stewart was the first committed attempt to follow this policy.
Stewart then kept wicket in 82 of the next 123 Tests he played, an approach that limited Russell's tally of caps to 54. Stewart's batting suffered as a consequence of taking on the dual roles, although he occasionally used it to his advantage when he was out of form with the willow. If Stewart had performed just as a batsman, he would have played less Test cricket.
Russell, Steven Rhodes, James Foster, Warren Hegg, Richard Blakey and Read all played during Stewart's keeping career, when it was felt the workload was too much for him. It could be argued that England did not get the best out of him as a batsman by asking him to keep. The statistics back the theory up. In the 82 Tests Stewart kept wicket for England he averaged 34.92, and in the 51 he played solely as a batsman he averaged 46.7.
The workload placed on Read, Jones and Prior is less than Stewart's because he opened the batting for England, too, and it is asking a lot of a cricketer to perform both tasks exceptionally well. Even Sangakkara, the nearest equivalent to Gilchrist, struggles. Sri Lanka have recently relieved him of the gloves so that he can concentrate on his batting and the results are startling. As a keeper Sangakkara averaged 41 in Test cricket; as a specialist batsman it rises to the phenomenal figure of 92.
For a while England felt that Jones was the man, controversially selecting him ahead of Read, the best gloveman in the country. A bowler will always desire the best keeper behind the stumps because he wants that half-chance he creates when bowling at Brian Lara or Sachin Tendulkar to be taken. Sadly, Read's batting is not up to it.
Jones began well with the bat, scoring a hundred in his third Test against New Zealand at Headingley in 2004. He scored useful runs in England's 2005 Ashes triumph, too, and while that happened the odd blemish behind the stumps could be forgiven. When Jones' batting began to deteriorate in 2006, though, he had to go.
The resignation of Duncan Fletcher as coach last year ended the era of Read and Jones, and Peter Moores christened the start of his tenure as coach by introducing Prior. There are many, myself included, who feel that England dispensed with Prior far too early. Yes, he had a poor third Test against Sri Lanka in Galle, dropping two or three catches he should have held on to, but very few people cared to consider how hard he had worked in the previous two Tests.
On that tour only Ryan Sidebottom would have expended more energy and he was absolutely shattered by the third Test. Sidebottom's exasperation at seeing Prior grass a couple of catches off his bowling did not help the wicketkeeper's cause, nor did sledging and dropping Tendulkar in last summer's home series against India.
Prior's glovework does need to improve but in his 10 Tests he looked the part as a batsman, averaging more than 40. As the man in possession – after England's flirtation with Phil Mustard in the limited-over games on this tour – Ambrose has a chance to cement his place in the side. He will be given a good run at it but one cannot help but feel that after a year or two of searching for Superman, the selectors will return to Prior.
Now Adam Gilchrist, can you see the chaos you have created? Wicketkeepers hope you are happy with yourself.
Catching a break: Those England have tried since September 2003