LONDON: All life at least for the England selectors is the search for the perfect wicket-keeper.
Forty years ago they had to choose between Alan Knott and Bob Taylor and picked out Knott who rewarded them with superb displays behind the stumps and astonishing batting in front of the wicket. Fifteen years ago they decided that Alec Stewart, not Jack Russell, was the right man and found that Stewart gave them an all-rounder in disguise.
Sadly the last few years have not worked out as well. Coach Duncan Fletcher did not appreciate the independent stance of Chris Read and insisted that the runs offered by Geraint Jones had more value. When Jones faltered he returned to Read but now the new coach, Peter Moores a retired keeper, has gone for Matt Prior from his old club Sussex. It is not working out.
Fall in keeping
Since Prior began at Lords with a two-hour century which appeared to nail down the position for as long as he could find the right size gloves, his keeping has deteriorated to the extent that no-one expresses surprise when he drops catches or has to dive, scramble and lunge for the ball. He has let slip five chances this summer, and amazingly they are all off Ryan Sidebottom, the gangling left-arm swing bowler who is clearly too tricky for him to grasp.
So far his fortunate non-victims are Chris Gayle dropped in the second innings at Leeds on four out of his final total of 13. At Old Trafford Prior put down Ramdin on four out of 34; at Lords he allowed Wasim Jaffer to go from nought to 58; and here he has given a second chance to Sachin Tendulkar on 20 out of 82 and V.V.S. Laxman who added a further 10 runs after Prior had snatched the ball out of Andrew Strausss hand when he was 41. Time to return to Read? Maybe but I will not believe that until it happens.
We have always been lucky in this country that long seasons of county cricket brought long lists of good to great keepers who barely saw Test play. Keith Andrews of Northampton in the 1950s and 1960s is often given as an example of a wicket-keeper who might have played 10 years for England so immaculately that no-one would have noticed but there have also been Jimmy Binks of Yorkshire, Colin Metson of Glamorgan, and Warren Hegg of Lancashire who might have been outstanding had the chances come their way.
If the selectors think Prior has dropped one catch too many they may turn to Tim Ambrose, now of Warwickshire who had to leave Sussex to find regular employment because Prior stood in his way.
As an Englishman who has seen many of Tendulkar’s great feats I feel I have to mark what may be his last innings in this country by expressing my admiration. One special memory will remain when all the others go. At Sydney in 1992 he made 148 not out including a glorious late burst of hitting when tail-enders were his only help mates.
As the innings finished Merv Hughes walked down the pitch and shook his hand and Dean Jones ran 100 yards from his place on the boundary to put a fatherly arm round his shoulders.
Those were happier, more gallant, rather nicer days when the established aces were happy to welcome a new glow in the sky and never considered the use of toffees as a legitimate wicket-taking tool.