Home is where the heat is on for Jones

The Queensland-raised keeper's glovework will be scrutinised this week, writes Stephen Brenkley
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The Independent Online

England flew into Brisbane last night to meet their destiny and a team of Australian cricketers desperate to reshape it. For all the tourists the next seven weeks will have a huge bearing on the rest of their professional lives, but for one among them the journey to Queensland had an overwhelming significance in every sense.

Geraint Jones was returning to the state where he spent his formative years, to the city where he finished his formal education and first played significant cricket. At the Gabba on Thursday he will be watched by friends and relatives, some with divided loyalties. But the homecoming, if it was such, was considerably more poignant.

Jones has been controversially recalled as England's wicketkeeper for the first Test and it is hardly stretching a point to suggest that the fate of the series is in his hands. All the attention in the endless prognostication leading to the series has dwelt on batting and bowling.

But it is likely to be through catching in general that England will ultimately retain or relinquish the Ashes and the catching of the wicketkeeper in particular. Jones has been brought back into the team at the expense of Chris Read for whom he himself was dropped last summer. The reputation and career not only of Jones but also of England's coach, Duncan Fletcher, is at stake. And the Ashes, of course.

A single fumble will bring pursed lips, a dropped catch will bring opprobrium and if Jones thought he might be spared at least until those occurrences he was sadly mistaken. His selection was roundly derided by Shane Warne last night and from the look and sound of it the leg-spinner was not merely indulging in a spot of last-minute pre-series sport.

As Jones prepared to embark on the distinctly unsentimental journey yesterday, he reflected on the recall. "I'm a little bit surprised. I came away with Chris having the gloves at the end of the summer so I thought the first two weeks would be crucial," he said. "The early timing of finding out was good for me. I feel for Chris but it gave me a chance to get my head round it."

If Jones was surprised it is fair to say that many observers were astounded. For as long as Jones was in the team - for 31 consecutive Tests until he was dropped for the final two matches of the Pakistan series - debate raged about the quality of his work behind the stumps.

It was the ultimate irony that he was dropped eventually not for his moderate keeping, which had improved markedly, but for his batting. He had stopped getting runs. Read did all that could have been reasonably expected of him in his two Tests back. He scored 38, 55, 33 and took six catches and a stumping. Jones, meanwhile, was so short of form that he played for Kent's second team before, at last, scoring a couple of Championship half-centuries at the season's fag end.

Read went as wicketkeeper to the Champions Trophy where his batting under pressure was found wanting in all three matches. His keeping was generally tidy, but a couple of misses left him vulnerable. Fletcher, who has ultimate selection powers on tour, made his move early in Australia. Read was out.

Warne did a fine impression of Disgusted of St Kilda. "By dropping Jones, going back to Read, then going back to Jones again he'll be under enormous pressure," the great leg-spinner said. "It's a known fact - it's not me sledging or anything like that - that Jones is more of a batsman and is in the side for his batting, not his keeping which is steady at best.

"He has dropped some crucial ones, you don't want to be dropping Ricky Ponting when he's on half a dozen in the first Test when you've just been called back into the side. In Australian conditions you need your best keeper because the ball does bounce and it does carry. You've got to hold on to absolutely everything behind the stumps. So you need your best keeper in, that's why I thought they brought Read back."

There might have been an element of kidology in this analysis but it also made a deal of sense. Jones has to catch pigeons from now on. Comparisons are not entirely fair because keepers are only as good as their bowlers. However, in Tests for England, Read has conceded 0.65 byes per 100 balls, Jones 1.56 but Read has 1.83 wickets per innings while Jones has 2.07, a figure which astoundingly puts him first among those who have played more than 20 Tests.

Read thought for all the world that he had come on this tour as the No 1 keeper. Jones admitted it was difficult for Read when the decision was made. "I felt for him. But our relationship is good. We still work out in the gym together and are basically friends. It's nothing personal between us."

The fans who were pouring into this city last night will not think likewise. It could become extremely personal indeed if Jones shells one on Thursday morning.