Read should don Stewart's gloves

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The Independent Online

At the end of the Test match at The Oval the selectors will be forced to confront a problem they have effectively been turning a blind eye to for a long time. Alec Stewart will have finally hung up his wicketkeeping gloves and put his bat against the wall for the last time as far as Test cricket is concerned. No sleight of hand can alter that indelible fact.

A replacement has to be found in double-quick time because the party for the Bangladesh and Sri Lanka legs of the winter tour will be announced on Wednesday. Because he has for several years been the only genuine all-rounder available, Stewart's place in the side has been almost automatic.

There is no doubt that if Stewart had never been asked to don the gloves he would have scored even more than the 8,425 runs he had amassed in his 132 Tests before the start of this game. The Surrey player was a batsman who taught himself to keep wicket and although he did a pretty good job for someone who took to the gloves in this way, he never quite broke free from the tag of being a makeshift wicketkeeper.

It has been clear for a while that there are better keepers around, but Stewart's presence has enabled the England side to maintain a satisfactory balance. It has also become the accepted fact in the international game nowadays that wicketkeepers have to be all-rounders.

This leads to the mildly illogical fact that Stewart's successor behind the stumps will be chosen more for his batting than his wicketkeeping. The important decision that the selectors have to make is whether to go for someone like Stewart or for someone who is first and foremost a keeper with an aptitude for batting.

Unfortunately the likes of the ideal answer to this question, Alan Knott of Kent, come along once in a lifetime. There is a good case for putting Knott down as the best wicketkeeper ever - he was surely the best wicketkeeper England have ever had. He also scored 4,389 runs in his 95 Tests with five hundreds and an average of 32.75. There may not be a Knott around or, indeed, another Stewart, but there are a number of worthwhile candidates.

If the selectors decide to go down the Stewart path, the most likely candidate is another wicketkeeper from Kent, Geraint Jones. He is clearly a batsman of the highest potential, although he still has a lot of work to do as far as his wicketkeeping is concerned. Stewart himself reckons that if Jones is not yet ready, he will come through in a year or two. It takes one to know one!

England's bowlers would surely want to go down the other path. Their first need must be for a keeper with the best chance of hanging on to any chance that comes his way and it is impossible to disagree with that argument. Chris Read, who did so well in the one-day internationals earlier in the summer, would then become the first choice and should certainly wear the gloves this winter.

He is a fine keeper as well as being a real little scrapper with the bat in the lower middle order. He will need to work on his batting, but he already comes with the considerable recommendation of Rod Marsh, Australia's most formidable wicketkeeper-batsman until Adam Gilchrist burst upon the scene.

If Read does not continue to come through, James Foster of Essex is waiting in the wings and initially got the nod ahead of Read when he was taken to India and New Zealand two winters ago and played in all six Tests. He did well without quite grabbing either job by the throat. Another candidate in the wicketkeeper-batsman class is Surrey's Jonathan Batty, so the cupboard is far from empty.

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