With Jos Buttler ruled out of the fifth Ashes Test, England find themselves facing a familiar question: who should keep wicket?
Hobart might be the immediate concern but given Buttler’s struggles over the past year and with an England ‘red-ball reset’ pending, the discussion over who should take the gloves long term is a live one.
Whoever gets the nod for the series finale in Australia will have the chance to make their case but with the options limited, mainly due to injuries and Covid, there are no guarantees beyond that.
- Sam Billings ‘100 per cent ready’ for unexpected Test debut
- Jos Buttler’s Ashes series is over due to finger injury
So who are the leading contenders to fulfil the role behind the stumps for England post-Ashes?
The man in possession. Buttler’s Test career to date has arguably been among the most frustrating from an England player in recent memory. A return of two centuries with an average of 31.94 from 57 Tests does not even come close to accurately representing his immense talent.
While he has established himself as one of the leading white-ball players on the planet, in red-ball cricket things just have not clicked. There have been spells where it looked like that had changed, that he had finally cracked it as he averaged 44.70 across 2018 after being recalled to the side and in the summer of 2020, he averaged 52.
“It sounds like a bad fracture that he has sustained. What did he bat [on day five]? Ten overs, I think, which is quite a good effort. He must have been hurting but it’s 10 overs that took quite a bit of time out of the game.”
Michael Atherton on Jos Buttler
Since leaving after the first Test match on the tour of India last winter, as part of England’s rest and rotation policy, his form has nose-dived with a highest score of just 39 across 13 innings.
Behind the stumps, Buttler has also endured a difficult time in Australia, with a number of costly drops. However, prior to this series, he was outperforming the majority of wicketkeepers in Test cricket in terms of his catch percentage.
“Jos Buttler hasn’t done enough to justify his place in the side as a batsman-keeper at the moment.”
Rob Key on Jos Buttler
Meanwhile, his calming and level-headed presence in the review process might seem minor, they are not a huge part of the game and it cannot be completely overlooked. Nor can his tactical acumen to help assist Joe Root or his importance as a leader in the dressing room.
Ultimately though, while he is not scoring runs, his position is vulnerable and with a seemingly nasty break to his finger, he could find his place in the XI belongs to somebody else by the time he returns to fitness.
After a tricky two or three years in the longest format, Bairstow returned to form in mightily impressive style at the Sydney Cricket Ground. His century in the first innings was as good as any he has scored for England, according to Root, while he battled hard for 41 in the second to help his side bat out for the draw. His stock in red-ball cricket is as high as it has been for some time.
The question now is whether that should lead to him being reinstated as wicketkeeper-batter. Bairstow has made previously made no secret he wants the gloves back, having been relieved of those duties following the 2019 Ashes and it is also well known his record with the bat is significantly better when he plays as a keeper – averaging 37.37 with five hundreds in 87 innings with the gloves, compared to 29.03, two hundreds in 55 innings without.
“My point with Bairstow has always been that I’ve thought he is one of our best batsmen – and I know he hasn’t shown that. Now there will be people saying ‘Bairstow shouldn’t have had the gloves taken off him so let’s give him the gloves back, put him to No 7 and bring in a batsman who has averaged less than 30 for however long.’ I would actually keep him as the batsman because I think he is one of our better batsmen and now he’s got confidence.”
Rob Key on Jonny Bairstow
(Coincidentally, Buttler is the opposite – 29.60 as keeper, 35.68 as a specialist batter. Just something to consider.)
Bairstow’s standout year in Test cricket came in 2016 when he racked up 1,470 runs across 29 innings, scoring three hundreds with an average of 58.80 – all while playing as a keeper-batter. That is far and away his best year, with an average of 34.31 in 2017 his next best showing.
Frustratingly for all involved, 2016 really has been the outlier in terms of his output. In the five years since then, Bairstow’s records with or without the gloves are very similar – 29.11 to 28.22 in favour of not playing as keeper. Given he only kept in four Tests prior to 2016, it is not much of a sample size, but it is the same story there – 28.96 to 26.50, better numbers as a frontline batter.
“I’ve always felt that Jonny Bairstow is an excellent keeper-batsman for England. Just pick your keeper-batsman and pick your batter after that. I’d bring Pope in to bat, and I’d give the gloves to Bairstow again – they probably shouldn’t have been taken off him.”
Nasser Hussain on Jonny Bairstow
In terms of his glovework, Bairstow has rarely let England down. He is a good wicketkeeper and there is no reason to doubt he could be again. Consistent runs remain the key factor and with the numbers it is possible to make arguments either way on whether or not that means restoring him as wicketkeeper is the right thing to do.
A thumb injury means those in charge should have a little while longer to ponder which way they want to come down on that one.
If it were as simple as selecting the player who is best with the gloves – you know, the best actual wicketkeeper – then there would be no discussion, no debate. Ben Foakes would be the England wicketkeeper.
However, this is cricket – and English cricket, at that – and it is never that straightforward. Foakes is unequivocally the best out and out gloveman in the country and has shown as much in masterful displays stood up to the stumps in Sri Lanka and India. His director of cricket at Surrey, Alec Stewart, has repeatedly argued Foakes is actually the best keeper in the world.
“Ben Foakes is the best keeper in England so you go down that route and you hope that his batting gets to the standard required in Test match cricket, which it will do if you give him a long enough run.”
Nasser Hussain on Ben Foakes
The expectation a wicketkeeper should also contribute with the bat is nothing new though, indeed Stewart himself regularly kept wicket for England in the 90s when they opted to go with another frontline batter over master gloveman Jack Russell, and while Foakes is certainly no slouch with the bat, it seems he is yet to convince the selectors he can offer as much as either Buttler or Bairstow.
Foakes can point to a century on his Test debut in Sri Lanka as well as another half-century in the series, while an unbeaten 42 as England were bowled out for 134 in Chennai last year showed his fight as well as his technique. Meanwhile, his Test average of 31.53 is just a fraction off Buttler’s and not too far off Bairstow’s either.
Perhaps the concerns come from a disappointing return on the more seam-friendly pitches in the Caribbean in 2019, where he mustered just 55 runs in four innings at an average of 13.75. In India, despite that knock in Chennai, he averaged only 15.60 over six innings, albeit on some very challenging pitches.
Foakes is yet to play in a home Test but if you look at first-class averages, his 38.35 is bettered only by Bairstow among the leading contenders for the wicketkeeping job. He is also the youngest, although he will be 29 by the time the first Test in the West Indies begins in March so is well past the bright, young hope phase.
However, if a new coach, captain or selection committee is in place by then, Foakes as first-choice keeper would represent a fresh, new approach and his name is sure to feature heavily.
A stalwart of the England white-ball squad, if not the XI – in no small part due to the presence of Buttler and Bairstow – Billings has emerged as an option in Test cricket over the past year and now looks well placed to make his debut in the fifth Ashes Test.
The Kent captain was within two hours of flying back to the UK after a stint with Big Bash League franchise Sydney Thunder when he received a call-up to the Test squad as cover, following injuries to Buttler and Bairstow.
“I’ve been playing and scoring runs. I’m 100 per cent ready if required. It doesn’t really matter what format it is, it’s more about rhythm, confidence and mindset.”
Sam Billings on his Ashes call-up
He drove over 500 miles from Queensland to Sydney to take his place and while Ollie Pope took four catches after filling in behind the stumps during the second innings at the SCG, the more established keeper in Billings is expected to get the nod.
The 30-year-old has played 25 ODIs and 33 T20Is for England since making his international debut in 2015 and was also part of the Test squad for series against New Zealand and India over the summer following an injury to Foakes.
A total of 74 first-class matches in 10 years suggests red-ball cricket has not always been Billings priority but he does have six first-class centuries to his name and a respectable average of 34.29.
Billings remains an outsider to get the role on a more full-time basis, but a combination of circumstance and the misfortune of others has provided him with a big opportunity. If he can take his BBL form into the Test arena at Hobart then who knows how far that might take him?