Monday, 28 January 2013

Taylor, Bates and the future of keeping

Ashley Giles' first move as England's white ball supremo, or at least the first that cannot be cloaked in the fog of rotation, has been to ditch a keeper in favour of a county team-mate who is second-choice with the gloves back at home. "It has been slightly awkward," admitted Jos Buttler, gamely.

Choices on tour are limited, and Kieswetter's abject form left him with little credit in his account but it feels like a pivotal time for the position itself, so secure in the Test side, so fluid everywhere else.

It's a matter of philosophy, the future of keeping in the post-Gilchrist era, and Giles appears to be thinking quite conventionally about it. Someone like Butler is the acme of this approach, a guy who is essentially a batsman with a second string to his bow. England have a raft of them that they can argue over, from Bairstow to Kieswetter, while they apparently lack the desire to solve the conundrum of their one true thoroughbred, Matt Prior.

But, as this blog has long held, 50 over cricket is dead; it just hasn't finished threshing about on the hook yet. It's in the T20 game that Giles' approach will have longer term implications, and there's an emerging argument (well from me at least) that a complete reappraisal of the wicketkeeper's role is coming.

Like Duckworth Lewis, it's simply an equation of resources. T20 is a game for specialisation, because unlike Test and ODI cricket, those resources are rarely exhausted in the time allocated.

The maths goes something like this: at the start of each game, the wicketkeeper is the only specialist position guaranteed to be able to affect a minimum of 50 per cent of the match while using their primary skill (the 20 overs for which they keep). A bowler has ten per cent (four of 40 overs), the two opening batsmen an unlikely maximum of 50 per cent, the other batters a sliding downward scale from there.

Accepting that almost everyone can field well, and that all-rounders increase their overall percentages by batting and bowling, it's easy to see that the most valuable player in these simple terms of opportunity would be an opening bat that can bowl (Chris Gayle, perhaps), although the occasions on which even the transcendent Jamaican carries his bat occur infrequently.

The wicketkeeping position can therefore be reimagined as an attacking option for a fielding side. It's an opportunity to reduce the effectiveness of the batsman by keeping him in his crease against seam bowling, thus reducing his scoring options. While it's hard to quantify exactly how many runs might be saved by a gloveman capable of standing up to the seamers, it is a move that would challenge many of the techniques of T20 batting. It might not be fanciful to guess that the score might be limited by 20-30 per innings, at least until batsmen adjusted in turn.

It first suggested itself in the performance of Michael Bates in the CB40 final last season. It's easy to go into some kind of reverie when watching him keep; he brings back memories of Bob Taylor standing up to Ian Botham, of the impish skills of Knott, the silken hands of Russell. Hampshire have choked many a side with a combination of skiddy medium pace, spin and Bates behind the dollies.

Taylor, Knott and Russell were a different shape to the gym-produced, identikit bodies that burst forth from the tight-shirted present. The demands of the job mitigate against the physique needed for power hitting, and a specialist keeper might have to be regarded a little like a bowler, with his main contribution coming in the field. But without running the stats, it would be interesting to know how often the seventh batter in a line-up has done the job when six others couldn't.

Bates is an obvious choice for Giles and England. A less immediate but nonetheless intriguing selection for a county side might be Sarah Taylor. She is lithe and athletic, attributes that are evident in her keeping. The debate about her lack of power as a batter has rather blindsided the fact that it is motor skill and movement, rather than strength, that make a great wicketkeeper. It's in circumstances like these, a short game where a single skill can have a disproportionate effect, that a cricketer like Taylor might one day fit.


Anonymous said...

"...the most valuable player in these simple terms of opportunity would be an opening bat that can bowl"

This is another reason why Shane Watson is God amongst men in T20 while a bad commodity in Tests.

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Scott Oliver said...

Fascinating post, and an interesting way of approaching the impact of w/k's in T20, but perhaps the quantification of players' involvement may be misleading or too simplified. As ever, it's what you do in the time involved.

Also, the higher the level of cricket, the greater will be the speed of the bowlers, the less likely it will be that the w/k can stand up to the entire attack, or that it would be advantageous to do so (missing thick-edged catches, possible byes). And quite how a keeper would keep his eyes on the ball with Dilscoops and ramps being played would also be interesting...

Russell stood up at Bristol partly because it was a slow pitch and none of the bowlers were tall AND quick, and I think the necessity for specialized keepers will to a certain extent be indexed to the weapons in the attack, perhaps the conditions.

Brian Carpenter said...

Excellent and thought-provoking as always, OB.

As for the reverie, yes, I've been there (the day after the CB40 Final, in fact).

Much more will be heard of Bates, and it's to be hoped that it doesn't entirely depend on him improving his batting.

Jack Sheldon said...

Very interesting blog, although I'm not sure I agree entirely.

I know that the focus of your arguments is T20s rather than ODIs (which, incidentally, I feel will be around for some time to come, and rightly so).

However, I'll say a few words about ODIs first: in that format, unless the best gloveman happens to bat 1-6 or you have a plethora of world-class all-rounders, I don't see how you can pick him. All recent empirical evidence suggests that players at the top of the order that can make 100s, followed by destructive 'finishers' to take advantage of the last 15 and then 5 specialist bowlers (+ a reliable safety valve) is the most successful structure. There is no room for a non-batting 'keeper in that, particularly if, like Bates, they aren't aggressive.

On to T20 it perhaps becomes more of a subjective issue. Certainly, I don't think you want to have a poor/ part-time 'keeper (e.g. Umar Akmal and arguably Bairstow) who is likely to miss lots of chances. However, I don't think that the difference between a Bates and a Buttler is quite as wide as you are suggesting. Whilst Buttler may not have effected the win in the CB40 final quite as Bates did, that situation where one bit of 'keeping changes the course of the game occurs in perhaps 1 in 20 matches. Does that one-off situation justify the loss of runs? I wouldn't have thought so. I'd argue that Buttler is perfectly competent enough to take 95% of the regulation catches and stumpings (even Foster misses a few)and to take his fair share of non-regulation ones too. For me, that is good enough and the best utilisation of resources.

The Old Batsman said...

Scott and Jack, yes I do agree to an extent. It's more about trying it out, and then finding some much better evidence of how many runs a keeper can save. I don't have the time or the stats knowledge to do that, but Hants have been extremely successful in T20 cricket without having an explosive 200+ team, and Bates has been a big part of that.

King Cricket said...

I've only just seen this. I made a similar point six years ago, but I think you make it more persuasively. I like the cold logic of breaking down the percentage of the game that can be influenced, in particular.

For what it's worth, this was my piece.

I like to keep my writing half-arsed to prevent fully formed thoughts from being expressed.

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