A wicket-keeper who can keep

Ever since Adam Gilchrist burst onto the scene for Australia, the world of cricket has been experimenting with the idea of selecting Wicket-keepers who have batting skills rather than selecting the best "gloveman" regardless of his batting ability.

Obviously there is some trade-off where a certain level of risk and reward is examined. It would look like this:

If (runs scored) - (runs conceded) of the keeper-batsman is greater than (runs scored) - (runs conceded) of the specialist keeper, then the keeper-batsman is preferred:

Select KB if KB(RS-RC) > SK(RS-RC).

Note: Runs Conceded = byes + runs scored due to direct misfielding + runs resulting from missed chances (that is, additional runs scored by batsman who should have been out, caught, stumped, run out etc by the Wicket-keeper)

Sounds all nice and mathematical except of course cricket isn't like that. Adam Gilchrist has the advantage of being a world-class batsman and a competent keeper, which means that the equation for him is simple. Lesser players in lesser teams are more problematic and the risks of selecting the wrong player are more dangerous.

The equation doesn't seem to working out for England, though. Matt Prior is the current Wicket-keeper - and he replaced Geriant Jones. Both of these players are keeper-batsmen, with Prior having a first class batting average of 38 and Jones with 30.

Prior's glovework has come under fire from two important cricket figures. The first critic is Ian Chappell:
Ian Chappell, the former Australian captain, has delivered a withering verdict on the standard of English wicketkeeping, and believes that England will never regain the Ashes so long as men of the standard of Matt Prior and Geraint Jones are selected in the Test side.

Prior endured a desperate match in the series decider at The Oval, dropping both Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman in the course of India's first innings of 664, and speaking to Cricinfo at the end of the match, Chappell was scathing about his abilities.

"I cannot see how England are going to win against decent sides with a wicketkeeper who is woeful," said Chappell. "An old skipper of mine, Les Favell, said that once a wicketkeeper starts costing you games, he's got to go, Matthew Prior is in that category for me."

For Prior, it is a far cry from the acclaim he received at the start of the summer, when he scored a flamboyant debut century against West Indies and was being seen in some quarters as the answer to England's prayers. Chappell, however, did not pretend to be one of his admirers.

"It's alright for some ex-players and scribes to say anyone can have a bad match, but you've got to see something there for the future, and I think Prior is so far off being an international wicketkeeper at Test level. One-day matches, he'll probably be terrific and that's fine, but Tests? Forget it."
The second critic is former England wicket-keeper Bob Taylor:
Bob Taylor, the former England wicketkeeper, has criticised the modern tendency of picking batsman-wicketkeepers and blamed the trend for the poor quality of wicketkeeping during the England-India Test series.

"You pick a wicketkeeper for his wicketkeeping ability," Taylor said in an interview to Cricinfo. "When you've got somebody like Adam Gilchrist who can bat and keep wicket then you are very lucky, but if the decision is marginal I'll always go for a wicketkeeper-batsman rather than a batsman-wicketkeeper."

The England-India Tests have been marred by poor keeping from both sides, especially by Matt Prior, the England keeper. "An inferior wicketkeeper is always found out," Taylor said, "and there can be a costly miss, like Prior's drop of Tendulkar in the first innings at The Oval last week."

Prior's poor run with the bat against India probably had a part to play in his problems behind the stumps, Taylor said. "That is definitely playing on his mind."

Taylor pointed out that it came as a bit of a surprise that Prior struggled in English conditions. "If it is an overseas wicketkeeper, like Dhoni, who hasn't had a lot of experience keeping in England, then you can understand it because the ball definitely deviates off the seam and through the air more in England than it does abroad, due to the atmospheric conditions."

Prior's lack of footwork has been among his biggest problems, Taylor said. "When you stand back to seam bowlers, you've got to move your feet and get your body behind the line of the ball."
Two players who come to my mind who have been high-class keepers who also have good batting ability are Alan Knott (who kept Bob Taylor out of the England side) who averaged 32.75 in tests, and Jeffrey Dujon (West Indies) who averaged 31.94 in tests.

I would agree with both Chappell and Taylor that only high-class wicket-keepers should be selected to play for their countries. Obviously Jones and Prior do not fit the bill. Nevertheless I would also give some selection room to high-class wicket-keepers who can also bat.

For example, let's say I have a choice between selecting Adam Gilchrist or some other player who is "10% better" as a wicket-keeper than Gilchrist but averages 20 with the bat - Gilchrist averages 48. In that situation I would still pick Gilchrist because the advantage of having a superior wicket-keeper is outweighed by taking an average of 28 runs from each innings Australia bats.

The solution is to take the top first-class wicket-keepers at your disposal and then pick the one who is the best batsman. First of all, set up a series of quantifiable wicket-keeping outcomes that you can measure, such as average amount of dropped catches per game, average amount of byes conceded, and so on. Obviously if you want a top class keeper you set high standards. If only one first-class player out of all the ones available meets these minimum standards, then you select him regardless. But let's say you have two, three, four, six (etc) players who meet those minimum standards - If that is the case then you pick the one who is the best batsman from the field of top contenders.

The advantage with this solution is that it is able to adequately quantify the skills required for the top keeping position without ignoring the advantage of having a keeper who can bat well.

© 2007 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/

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Ron said...

My English hero wa Godfrey Evans.
Can you do your calc for him.

Thomas Godfrey Evans CBE (August 18, 1920 – May 3, 1999) was an English cricketer who played for Kent and England.

Described by Wisden as 'arguably the best wicket-keeper the game has ever seen', Evans collected 219 dismissals in 91 Test match appearances between 1946 and 1959 and a further 1066 in first-class matches for Kent. En route he was the first wicket keeper to reach 200 Test dismissals, the first Englishman to reach 1000 runs and 100 dismissals in first-class cricket, the first Englishman to reach 2000 runs and 200 dismissals, and a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1951.

MOC said...

It's not as simple as this. You have to look at the balance of the TEAM. If you have a couple of genuine allrounders, and the rest of your bowlers can bat up to a point, then you can - and should - afford to select a wicketkeeper who is a very ordincary batsman, if he is the best wicketkeeper available, and send him in at 9 or 10. But if (as is the case with the present England side, and has been since Giles, and will be until Broad is established) your tail begins at No 8, then you canot afford the luxury of a wicketkeeper who bats poorly. You can't make generalisations; you have to look at the balance of the whole TEAM.