Read intent on keeping possession after roller-coaster ride back to England team

Wicketkeeper-batsman no longer stumped for an answer to cricket's catch-22. Stephen Brenkley reports from Mumbai
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The Independent Online

Chris Read has had his notable moments under an England helmet. There was the brutal, forlorn assault at Cape Town in 2000 when he was still serving a troubled apprenticeship and launched Shaun Pollock into the stratosphere. There was the cussed hitting two years ago at Georgetown, days after he had lost his place in the Test team, when he came in with England again desperate and smote a match-winning 27 from 15 balls.

There was the sad yet uproarious day at Lord's in 1999 when, in his second Test match, he mistook a slower ball from the New Zealand bowler, Chris Cairns, for something altogether more venomous and ended up being bowled while apparently doing an impression of a limbo dancer about to be struck by a cannonball.

Note that none of these read-all-about-it events worry Chris Read the wicketkeeper, the youngest capped by England in the modern era. That element of his game has rarely been in doubt and, if it is a truism that all the best wicketkeepers are barely noticeable, he fits the bill.

It is his batting, or the lack of it, that has always caused concern for the selectors, if not the pundits. It is his batting and Geraint Jones' lack of it that has now brought him back into the team. After 31 consecutive Test matches Jones was dropped in the summer.

Like Read, whom he had contentiously replaced in the West Indies two years earlier, Jones was left out after a comprehensive victory. Like Read, it was because of his poor batting form (he had gone 10 innings without reaching 20). It seemed perverse that Jones had made such vast strides as wicketkeeper.

It is the eternal conundrum, of course. What came first the chicken or the egg, the wicketkeeper or the batsman? After all the fuss Read remains unfairly unapologetic about what counts, what really counts.

"Some people are surprised when I say this but I'm from an era where wicketkeeping is first and foremost," he said as England prepared for their Champions Trophy match against Australia on Saturday. "I still believe I'm a wicketkeeper first and a batsman second, albeit a batter who has to average 35 plus or whatever. I'm fully aware of that but it's keeping I'd like to be judged on. I don't necessarily put them in order of performance but if someone asks what I do, I tell them I'm a wicketkeeper."

Of course, when the bombshell came in Barbados in the spring of 2004 he knew it was his batting which needed his immediate and devoted attention. England had won the series against West Indies in commanding style, Read had played eight consecutive Tests. If Read was nonplussed then (and he was) his reaction was similar when he was recalled in the summer.

"I was shocked, they'd just had a good win at Old Trafford," he said. "I was aware that things hadn't been going particularly well for Jonesy but he'd played all those games on the bounce. I didn't think that if I got my chance again it would come then.

"But after I was dropped I'd spent a good 12 months focusing far more on my batting, we're now back at pretty much 50-50. I am a much better batsman. The only thing you really look at is records and in 2004, when I was dropped, my first-class batting average was 26, now it's 31. When you've played quite a few games it's quite hard to change by five points."

His form for Nottinghamshire has been constantly good, and it was to his credit that he sustained it when he was trying to persuade a judge as sceptical as the England coach, Duncan Fletcher, of his merits. The deal was probably sealed by the 150 he made for England A against the Pakistanis in July. If he did not quite seize his renewed chance - his third coming for England - by the scruff of the neck, it was close. In three innings in the last two matches of the series against Pakistan he always got in, and he made his first Test fifty. These are important figures when your skill has been impugned as has Read's with the bat. He is also an innovative, hard-hitting one-day batsman, though his choice of shot in England's defeat to India last Sunday - swiping it down long-on's throat with 18 overs left to bat - was unwise.

"The one thing that has really changed in the last 12 months is that now I feel I can score big hundreds, and do it against good international attacks," he said. "That's the next big test for me and I feel pretty good about it. The only thing I would change about my career would be the batting side of things. If I'd come into the game three years later, maybe the whole emphasis would have been different and I would have been more conscious of it, whereas I came in as a wicketkeeper who batted and an average of 26 was all right then. It soon wasn't. Things change but I do think it will go more or less full circle where at least you are picking your keeper first."

It is fashionable and wrong to suppose that the argument about batting and wicketkeepers is contemporary. It has endured probably since gauntlets were invented. Les Ames, who played throughout the Thirties, might not have been the best wicketkeeper in England (though he was not far off), but his batting was eminently superior to any rival, including the Yorkshire gloveman Arthur Wood.

The debate raged through Jim Parks and just about every other keeper; through Alan Knott and Bob Taylor (which was a bit cooked up because Knott was so talented); through Alec Stewart and Jack Russell. Jones and Read were merely the modern version, though in this era the phenomenal Australian Adam Gilchrist (keeping to Shane Warne's fizzing leg-spin and averaging 48.8 with the bat) changed everything.

"It's a slightly weird situation because the Ashes will be our third winter together and each time it's been different with him or me as No 1," Read said. "We get on reasonably well in those four months away. We're together in the gym and and work on our keeping together. But then I went two years without seeing him."

If Read was not quite as good as some of his supporters suggested, it was glaringly obvious that he was better behind the stumps than the man in charge. But there was another difference. Jones, for all his perceived shortcomings, was a keeper of perpetual motion who constantly kept the team going. He was animated and noisy. Read is not.

"I am better but I don't think I'm ever going to be the noisiest wicketkeeper," he said. "I think a lot of it comes down to the experience you've had with your team-mates. At Notts I know every individual inside out, I know what to say to who and when. I am still very much feeling my way into the England team; when I have I'll make more informed comment. I know I'm the focal point so something will definitely develop."

None of the foregoing should be taken as implying that Read is unassertive. It would be ridiculous to pretend so after the incident at Hove last May, when having got a five-ball duck against the leg-spin of Mushtaq Ahmed, he went back to the pitch side from the dressing-room and roundly berated the bowler. Read was upset by excessive appealing but it was an excessive response for which the England and Wales Cricket Board reprimanded him. He is suitably contrite but it also shows he is no wilting wallflower. You can also sense him bristling occasionally about other matters.

Read could play a big part in the Ashes campaign. His keeping has become genuinely classy, if not infallible. He has worked hard on technique, favouring the method of which Australia's Ian Healy was a key proponent: standing wider towards slips and taking the ball on the inside. It takes you nearer the outside edges.

The youngest of the 62 wicketkeepers to play for England was Gregor MacGregor who was 20 years and 324 days old when he played against Australia in 1893 (Read was a solitary day older against New Zealand in 1999). MacGregor had a career batting average of 18.02. He wouldn't have had a look-in today.

Finders keepers: The Read file

Christopher Mark Wells Read

Born: 10 August, 1978, Paignton, Devon.

Education: Torquay Boys' Grammar School, University of Bath, Loughborough University.

Nickname: 'Reados'.

Height: 5ft 8in (1.73m).

County career: Devon (1994) Played in NatWest Trophy game at the age of 16; Gloucestershire (1997); Nottinghamshire (since 1998).

Honours: Won Denis Compton Award for most promising young player of the year, 1997.

Test debut: England v New Zealand at Edgbaston, first Test, 1-3 July 1999 .

Test record: matches 13; runs 325; highest score 55; average 20.31; catches 37; stumpings 5.

ODI debut: England v South Africa at Bloemfontein, Standard Bank Series, 23 Jan 2000.

ODI record: matches 33; runs 294; HS 30 not out; average 21; catches 40; stumpings 2.