Keeping out Kieswetter is Prior's big test
Unselfish Sussex stumper has not been treated well by England selectors but must wear gloves in the Ashes.
Nothing in English cricket irritates, excites or frustrates more than the choice of wicketkeeper. Like wicketkeepers themselves as it happens. It is a solitary position, unarguably influential but frequently indecisive, and perhaps that is why it remains the cause of so much contention.
At the end of last summer, Matt Prior must have been in the happiest of places. He had nailed the job at last, he had been prominent in England's Ashes victory, he was the wickie for all forms, all seasons. And then along came Craig Kieswetter, 22 and brimming with natural talent, at least as a batsman.
Kieswetter first annexed Prior's place in the England Twenty20 team, a place that Prior must have been sure was his, and helped propel the team to global glory. As of Thursday, he has expropriated Prior's position in the one-day, 50-over side.
It will have occurred to Prior, as doubtless it has to the selectors, that the Test place is up for grabs next, as soon as later this summer, in time for the Ashes this winter. When Geoff Miller, the national selector, was singing Kieswetter's praises after announcing his selection the other day for the forthcoming one-day internationals against Scotland (one match next Saturday) and Australia (a five-match series) he might have seized the opportunity to say how valuable Prior remained in the Test team. He did not; the silence spoke volumes, it spoke of Kieswetter.
Some will consider that Prior has passed up his chance. He has played 55 ODIs for England and although his batting average of 26 as keeper is not as high as it should be, it is higher than every other England one-day keeper apart from Alec Stewart. Still, he has not done himself justice.
The selectors will want something out of Kieswetter that they had from Stewart in his 138 matches as wicketkeeper, with added aggression. There is no mistake that he hits the ball long, hard, high and straight.
Kieswetter is also, so far, a lucky batsman in England colours, being dropped more than his fair share, escaping with close ones. But maybe you make your own luck. He has been brought in to open the batting and it would complicate selection were he to be omitted at some future date for Prior. The thinking has changed, the strategy with it.
Kieswetter was called up by England as soon as he was available, having served a four-year qualification period after deciding that he was not after all South African and would throw in his lot with the land of his mother, or at least the one next door to his mother, she being Scottish.
He has said and done all the right things since he first pitched up in Dubai last autumn and from there went on to Bangladesh and the Caribbean. Little more could have been asked of him.
Yet there remains a nagging doubt that Prior, Ashes hero that he is, has not been treated with quite the propriety he deserves. Through constant application, his wicketkeeping has progressed enormously and if he has put in the hours, the big secret is still a simple one: he stays lower for longer.
Apart from anything else, Prior is the most unselfish of cricketers. He always does what he thinks the side wants. It is some attribute to have. This is not to say that Kieswetter is selfish. Far from it, because going out and slugging at the top of the order demands the virtue of putting your own figures second.
Ferocious wicketkeeping duels have long been part of the game. Les Ames and George Duckworth were in competition 80-odd years ago when Ames' superior batting came to be preferred. When Godfrey Evans was playing 91 Tests for England through the 1940s and 1950s, Keith Andrew had consistent advocates.
Similarly, Alan Knott was regularly derided by those who supported Bob Taylor, though Knott was something special. The Stewart-Jack Russell argument was never satisfactorily resolved, though Stewart was clearly miles ahead on points when the batting and keeping were combined.
Splitting the Test and one-day keeping roles is as unsatisfactory in some ways as dividing the captaincy. It changes the dynamic of the dressing room, both individuals are bound to be affected. The wicketkeeper is the fulcrum of the team, even in an age when the art itself has been gradually eroded. Kieswetter has important supporters, but no matter how hard-nosed this coach and these selectors are (and they are), Prior deserves to be there against Australia this November, when it really counts.
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