In Peter Handscomb’s past five first-class matches as a wicketkeeper, he churned out 417 runs at an average of 60. Meanwhile, Australia’s Test keepers have averaged 18 with the bat in the past three years.
The Australian line-up has badly lacked balance because of this paucity of runs from glovemen Matt Wade, Peter Nevill and Brad Haddin.
It has left Australia’s lower order more vulnerable and made it hard to justify a batting all-rounder in the top seven.
Haddin averaged just 15 in his final dozen matches, then Nevill replaced him and also underperformed, averaging 22 from 17 consecutive Tests. Wade was chosen to replace Nevill because of his perceived ability to boost Australia’s batting. Instead he’s looked ordinary with the blade over the past four Tests, making 50 runs at an average of 12.
This minimal input from Australia’s keepers is particularly relevant ahead of their blockbuster Test series this year against India and England. Those teams have the two longest batting line-ups in Test cricket, getting a huge amount of runs from number seven down.
Indian number eight Ravi Jadeja has three triple-centuries in first-class cricket, while their number nine, Jayant Yadav, just made 221 runs at 74 against England in three Tests.
England have a frontline bowler in Chris Woakes who averages 36 with the blade in first-class cricket and a wicketkeeper in Jonny Bairstow who made 1470 runs at 59 in Tests just last year alone.
Australia, meanwhile, rely heavily on their top five. While this part of their team is in fine order thanks to the success of rookie batsmen Matt Renshaw and Peter Handscomb, numbers six and seven are huge holes.
Australia already have used four different players at number six this summer – Mitchell Marsh, Callum Ferguson, Nic Maddinson and Hilton Cartwright – in an effort to address this problem. They still haven’t found a solution.
Many fans will be wondering, however, whether Australia’s answer to their keeping issue may be looking them square in the grill.
Handscomb took over behind the stumps yesterday when Wade was forced from the ground due to illness. During 52 overs with the gloves, Handscomb’s keeping was sharp, apart from a couple of misfired spin deliveries which sprayed way down the leg side for byes.
It was, of course, a minute sample size from which to gauge the standard of Handscomb’s glovework at the highest level. With the SCG pitch offering true pace and bounce, conditions for keeping were far more elementary than Handscomb would encounter in Australia’s next series in India.
Regardless, he looked comfortable, whether standing back to the quicks or up to the spinners. At the very least, it is heartening that Australia have a backup gloveman of his calibre in their XI in case of instances like Wade’s illness.
The 25-year-old Victorian is familiar with the understudy role, having often filled in for Wade in Sheffield Shield cricket when the older keeper was injured or away on national duty. Wade’s presence in the Victorian set-up has limited Handscomb to just 14 first-class matches behind the stumps, out of a career haul of 66 matches.
In those 14 matches, Handscomb has made 783 runs at 37, including eight half-centuries and one century. But eight of those 14 matches were very early in Handscomb’s career – during the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons. It is only since the start of the 2014-15 season that we’ve seen Handscomb really flourish as a cricketer. That was when he began to pile up the stack of runs which eventually won him a place in the Test team as a batsman.
There are obvious concerns that were Handscomb handed the gloves permanently at Test level his batting would suffer significantly. It is worth noting, however, that since his blossoming as a player in 2014 he’s had no problem juggling those responsibilities for Victoria in the Shield.
In that time his scores while playing as a keeper have been 96, 10, 134, 98, 63, 16 and 0. That’s four half-centuries and a ton from just seven innings for a total of 416 runs at 60. Victoria have had such confidence in Handscomb’s ability to balance batting and keeping that they’ve regularly batted him in the top four, while he was playing as a gloveman.
That’s also a strong indication of their faith in Handscomb’s fitness and durability. The real question though is whether Handscomb’s glovework is close to being Test standard and, if it’s not, whether he can improve upon it as England’s Bairstow has this past year.
Like Handscomb, Bairstow was not even the first-choice gloveman for his domestic team. His valuable batting and potential with the gloves encouraged England to give him a decent run at the keeping position.
The results were mixed early on. In England’s four-Test series in South Africa early last year, Bairstow was commanding with the blade, cracking 359 runs at 72. He undid a lot of that good work by missing an incredible seven chances behind the stumps.
Yet England stuck with him and his glovework has improved steadily, with his solid efforts in their recent Test series in India unrecognisable to his shoddy work from a year ago.
If Australia were to consider using Handscomb as their Test keeper, they would have to come to terms with the fact he would miss more chances in the short term than the likes of Nevill.
If he were, however, able to grow into a steady Test keeper who averaged around 40 with the bat in Tests, Australia’s side would be far stronger and more flexible.
For now, this is all just academic. I doubt Australia are about to burden their rookie batsman with the added task of keeping on the toughest tour there is in India. But if their keepers continue to flop, and Handscomb shines on in the middle order, the selectors may well give his role a serious re-think.