Among the myriad topics for debate before next summer is the wicketkeeping question. It is like welcoming back an old friend. Jos Buttler, potential batting genius and athletic wicketkeeper with the sharpest reflexes, has staked an early claim to a berth in the Test team which may prove irresistible.
In the new era that has been promised and should not be postponed, it is certain to prove a fertile area for argument in the selection room and beyond. Until Matt Prior brought a temporary end to it by achieving a level of excellence which bore comparison with great forebears like Alan Knott and Les Ames, the wicketkeeper-batsman invariably provoked debate more heated than for any other place.
This is partly because there is only one of them and partly because the criteria have changed so that the nominee is expected to perform both functions brilliantly.
Prior has had the grimmest of years. He still averages above 40 with the bat in Tests but that has come down from a high point of 45.46 when he saved the match in Auckland last March.
By the time he was reluctantly dropped during the Ashes series and temporarily replaced by Jonny Bairstow he did not know whether to stick or twist as a batsman and was also suffering behind the stumps, his hands uncertain as if gripped by panic.
At 32, as he will be by the time next season arrives, Prior can hardly be written off. His record, which includes three Ashes victories, is too considerable for that and the smart money says that if he makes early runs for Sussex then the selectors will recall him for the First Test against Sri Lanka in June.
Bairstow will not hold on to the place. He may or may not make it as a Test batsman, though the jury is fast reaching a verdict on that, but it was a nonsense to pick him as the reserve wicketkeeper-batsman for this tour; he was simply not qualified for the job.
But Buttler sets pulses racing. His innings of 71 in 43 balls at Perth on Friday resuscitated England and ensured a total that was out of Australia’s reach. It was thrilling stuff by one of the most exciting and innovative batsman to play for England.
Alastair Cook, the captain, was eager not to push his case in Test cricket. He probably still had Prior in mind but also did not want to fuel a bandwagon that may become unstoppable. “It is a different format,” said Cook. “He knows he has got to go and score a lot of four-day runs. Let’s concentrate on the one-day and Twenty20 stuff.
“He’ll be the first to admit it took him a little bit of time to find his feet at international cricket but he’s grown all the time. Obviously the game is very different to the county game and what has impressed me is how he has adapted his shots to be able to still do the damage at the end. 70 off 40 balls, it’s very hard to captain against it.”
Last season was Buttler’s best in Championship cricket when he averaged 36.29 for Somerset. He left the county in the autumn when they decided to retain his wicketkeeping rival, Craig Kieswetter, whose place Buttler had taken in the England limited-overs side.
Buttler will ply his trade for Lancashire in 2014. Of players to have featured in at least 20 one-day internationals, none has scored their runs more quickly than Buttler’s 131.41 every 100 balls. With his gifts as abundant as his allied to a shrewd cricket brain, he can surely make the transfer to Test cricket.
As Ben Stokes, who has played with and against Buttler since they were 14, said: “He’s always been good, but some of the shots he has come up with recently are ridiculous. His flicks and ramps are unbelievable.
“He will hit you over the keeper’s head for four and then smash you back over your head for six. When a bloke does that it is very exciting to see.”
Stokes is the other plus point of this disastrous trip which cannot end soon enough for some players. The all-rounder was fined 15 per cent of his match fee from the fourth ODI in Perth on Friday following an altercation with Australia’s James Faulkner in England’s only victory of the tour. He wa found guilty of “using language or a gesture that is obscene, offensive or insulting”.
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