Bairstow, Buttler struggling due to inexperience - Jack Russell
Jonny Bairstow currently takes the gloves for England but his wicket-keeping has come under scrutiny
World class Test match teams need a world class wicket-keeper. The great West Indies side of the 1980s had Jeffrey Dujon’s acrobatic brilliance behind the stumps. When Australia dominated in the late 1990s and 2000s, it was built on the safe hands of Ian Healy and Adam Gilchrist. England’s rise to number one in the world in 2011 was in no small part due to Matt Prior’s excellence with the gloves.
England currently do not have a world class keeper and if they are to progress to number one in the world, they must find one.
His wicket-keeping has been less effective though and questions have been raised after he dropped seven chances in the recent Test series in South Africa. That simply cannot go on.
Bairstow replaced Jos Buttler as England’s Test keeper for the third Test of the series against Pakistan in the UAE. The decision was based on Buttler’s failures with the bat rather than any particular issue with his wicket-keeping.
Although Buttler is not the finished article behind the stumps, he is a better keeper than Bairstow but such is the need for runs from a Test wicket-keeper, his failures could not go on for ever.
Jos Buttler was dropped to make way for Bairstow
It is the same reason that saw Peter Nevill replace Brad Haddin as Australia’s Test stumper last summer. After a terrible run of form with the bat which saw Haddin average just over 15 in his last 12 Tests he was replaced by Nevill even though his keeping was still serviceable, the miss off Joe Root at Cardiff excepted.
Jack Russell played 54 Tests for England in a stellar career and is widely acknowledged as one of England’s greatest ever keepers, rated alongside greats such as Alan Knott and Bob Taylor. He believes the reason for Bairstow’s struggles is inexperience.
Wicket-keepers making their England Test debuts since since 1998 (when Russell played his last Test)
Warren Hegg - 1998-99, 2 Tests
Chris Read - 1999-2007, 15 Tests
James Foster - 2001-2002, 7 Tests
Geraint Jones - 2004-2006, 34 Tests
Matt Prior - 2007-2014, 79 Tests
Tim Ambrose - 2008-2009, 11 Tests
Jonny Bairstow - 2012-2016, 24 Tests
Jos Buttler - 2014-2015, 15 Tests
"Jonny Bairstow is still raw with the gloves and learning his trade, but is a very good batsman and talented lad," says Russell.
"Buttler is the same and in his case hasn’t even kept a full county season yet so we should expect mistakes.
"They are asking keepers to learn their art at international level instead of doing several years apprenticeship at county level so mistakes are bound to happen more often. It took me two full seasons in county cricket to work out what I was supposed to be doing."
Gilchrist changed the way keepers are measured in the modern game; it is not just about glovework anymore. Dujon and Healy were first and foremost keepers who were also decent Test match batsman, averaging in the early 30s.
Gilchrist’s brilliance with the bat changed that dynamic so that keepers now have to be able to average over 40 with the bat, score runs quickly as well as catch everything that comes their way. That is not an easy task.
"Coaches and selectors now don’t regard keeping as a priority; it’s very secondary," says Russell.
"The first thing they look at are runs and also the way you score runs."
Bairstow has been the stand out batsman on the county circuit for the past two seasons and he was originally recalled to the England side during the Ashes as a batsman. Buttler’s undoubted class with the bat, particularly in one-day cricket, identified him to the selectors before his keeping did.
If there are parallels to be drawn, Bairstow seems to be at a similar stage to when Prior first played for England in Test cricket in 2007.
Prior’s class with the bat was underlined when he made a century on debut against the West Indies at Lord’s but was soon dropped after a torrid tour to Sri Lanka exposed real problems with his keeping.
Once out of the side, he worked ferociously on his keeping and when recalled did a fine job as part of England’s rise to number one, becoming a high class exponent behind the stumps. Bairstow has that journey ahead of him.
Jack Russell played 54 Tests for England and won multiple honours with Gloucestershire
"Bairstow and Buttler will get better over time because they are good professionals and will work their socks off like Alec Stewart and Prior who were top class later in their keeping careers," says Russell.
"The best two keepers in the world are James Foster at Essex and Middlesex’s John Simpson but if they don’t get big hundreds they won’t be picked.
"The days of the specialist keeper are gone."
As England’s captain Alastair Cook said after the series in South Africa, Bairstow has a lot of work to do on his keeping over the next year because England cannot afford to keep dropping chances, especially on flat pitches which they will encounter in the subcontinent next winter.
Whether the Yorkshireman can do enough to stop Buttler regaining the gloves is hard to say. In the long term, it is likely that Buttler will return to the side as keeper and Bairstow will play as a batsman only.
Regardless of whoever is behind the sticks, if England’s recent improvement in Test cricket is to continue, their wicket keeper needs to be world class with the gloves and with the bat.
Whether that’s Buttler, Bairstow or somebody else remains to be seen.
© Cricket World 2016