Numbers add up only to confusion over the Read choice

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Chris Read was under no illusions. "There's always a certain amount of scrutiny," he said of his return as England's keeper.

Not a certain amount. A lot, and it began in earnest at 4.35pm on Friday when Read came to the wicket because Kevin Pietersen got cramp. How did he stand up to it?

He looked nervous at the crease; so anxious to get off the mark that he swished at a short ball outside the off stump - a stroke that was a centimetre away from a disastrous duck. He got off the mark with a boundary, but it came off a clumsy inside edge. It went on to miss the leg stump, but you never can tell with inside edges.

Read scored in either boundaries or singles. He is not a stylist. He likes a cross-batted clout to midwicket, and one of these off Danish Kaneria went for six. He drove nicely into the covers but the Pakistan captain, Inzamam-ul-Haq, had packed them with a defensive ring which Read found difficult to pierce.

But Inzamam did Read a good turn in the half-hour before taking the new ball by giving a turn to his part-time spinners, Taufeeq Umar and Salman Butt. There were easy runs to be had and Read had his share of them. As his total edged towards his Test highest of 38, against Bangladesh, he slowed down, as if he was in the nervous 30s. (He also has two 37s in Tests.)

Read made it to 38 again, and had been in for 93 minutes in all when he played back to a ball of fairly full length from Umar Gull and was given lbw. He had faced 74 balls, equalled his highest Test score and, with Ian Bell, put on 86 runs, the highest partnership of the day. The statistics suggest a success, but they mislead.

The inelegance does not matter, but his insecurity communicates itself to the audience. Read does not make for easy spectating. The performance sends you back to question the assertion that Read's batting has improved since he was replaced by Geraint Jones in the West Indies in 2004.

This was true enough in the 2004 season, when his first-class average was 50.43, though last season it fell to 44.47. This season, however, he averages 34.69 for Nottinghamshire in first-class cricket. In the Championship he averages 27.41, having scored 329 runs in 14 innings, with one hundred and two fifties.

These statistics make his selection harder to understand, (the county grapevine suggests his fellow pros were surprised) and perhaps explain a phenom-enon noted by John Stern, editor of the Wisden Cricketer. While Jones held the job, most contributions to the mailbag suggested that he ought to be replaced by Read. Once Read was selected, a majority of the correspondents claimed this was unfair to Jones. Indecision is not final, but it is rife.

Read, who is 28 next week, is playing at Headingley because the relentless search for a keeper- batsman is still not over. This a great age for them; and all Test teams seem to have one. Look at the figures: Adam Gilchrist averages 48.8; Kumar Sanga-kkara 41.24; Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Kamran Akmal and Mark Boucher are close to 30. The daddy of them all is Andy Flower (53.71), though his pre-eminence is largely forgotten.

Duncan Fletcher thought Jones belonged in the top rank, but, as his keeping improved - and there was plenty of room for that - his average has fallen away to 25.79, lower than Jack Russell, who lost his England place as a specialist keeper to Alec Stewart, who averaged a healthy 34.92 as a keeper, better even than Alan Knott (32.75).

No problem with the keeping, of course. Read had to wait precisely 57 minutes for Matthew Hoggard to adjust his radar sufficiently to find the edge of Taufeeq Umar's bat. Read dived to his left and took the ball cleanly in both hands. There was never any doubt that he would.

He looks at home behind the stumps, initiating an animated discussion with his skipper, cheering up the bowlers, clapping a good throw from the field. As the bowler runs in, he stands with his hands on his knees, going into the crouch only as the ball is delivered.

The insecurity induced by his batting is gone. Read's proper place is behind the stumps. The jury is still out on his performance in front of them.

After a couple of days, the verdict on Read in preference to Jones is the Scottish one: not proven.