Australia needs a new ‘keeper, but it’s not Peter Handscomb

Asher England Roar Rookie

By , Asher England is a Roar Rookie

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    Since the retirement of Brad Haddin, Australia have simply not had a wicketkeeper of Test standard.

    For the proudest and most successful nation in the history of Test cricket, this is a difficult truth to swallow. The days of Rod Marsh, Ian Healy and the legendary Adam Gilchrist are long gone.

    The burden of succeeding these phenomenal performers fell first to the capable Haddin, before settling on the shoulders of Matthew Wade, then New South Wales’s Peter Nevill, then Wade again after the calamitous defeat at Hobart in late 2016.

    Nevill was a major casualty of that disaster, having mostly kept tidily during his brief Test career but posting only two fifty-plus scores with the bat to average a disappointing 22.28 from 17 Tests. With Australia desperate for a stronger batting line-up, having just crashed to a brutal defeat in which they were shot out for a ghastly 85 in the first innings, Nevill’s modest performances with the willow brought him undone.

    The man to replace him was Matthew Wade, considered a quality batsman and already possessing two Test centuries from his previous stint in the side. But Wade, too, has been a major disappointment. In nine Tests since his return to the side, he’s made just 255 runs at 21.25 and has thoroughly failed to justify his selection as a batting keeper.

    It’s also his lack of polish behind the stumps that has endangered his place. Though he kept reasonably well in difficult conditions in India, he is clearly not among the best pure glovemen in the country. The difficult truth is that Australia’s glovemen have been close to the bottom of the Test pile since the retirement of Haddin.

    Matthew Wade keeping

    (AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal)

    The great difficulty for Australia is that there is no obvious replacement. Among the veterans, Chris Hartley has retired after a stellar final season for Queensland, while the prodigiously talented Tim Paine looks unlikely ever to add to his four Tests after struggling with a finger injury and failing to recover enough form even to hold a permanent place in Tasmania’s Sheffield Shield side.

    Some have raised the possibility of giving Australia’s incumbent No. 5 batsman, Peter Handscomb, the gloves. The usual argument is that he would be much better with the bat than Wade and surely no worse with the gloves.

    There is, however, little basis for such an assessment. As a part-time keeper who, according to his own account, considers himself a batsman, there is no guarantee whatsoever that his keeping would be an improvement on Wade’s.

    Indeed, with limited match practice since his early Victorian career, it is highly probably that his glovework would be significantly worse. Having, essentially, a gully fielder with gloves on behind the stumps would be hugely detrimental to the confidence of Australia’s bowlers in addition to costing them wickets.

    Peter Handscomb of Australia looks at the wicket keepers gloves

    (AAP Image/Paul Miller)

    Advocates for Handscomb to take the gloves often cite his batting prowess as an opportunity for the side to play an extra batsman or bowler. Handscomb does have, on the surface, an impressive record from his short Test career thus far, averaging just under 50 with two hundreds to his name from his debut home summer.

    Since leaving Australia’s shores, however, Handscomb has struggled for impact in admittedly difficult conditions. In ten innings since the end of the home series against Pakistan, Handscomb has managed 246 runs at 27.33 with only one fifty-plus score (a brilliant fourth innings 72 not out).

    Handscomb is certainly worth persisting with as a specialist batsman. Close watchers of his fluent footwork will know that he has the technical tools to succeed in spinning conditions, if only he can capitalise on his frequent starts.

    To give him the gloves, however, runs the risk of seriously undermining his ability to contribute with the bat, especially having experienced a lean recent run and not quite succeeding in cementing his place at No. 5. Australia should not endanger his confidence with the bat by asking him to bring his part-time keeping to the Test arena.

    Where to, then, if not Wade or Handscomb? Peter Nevill responded to his axing with an excellent Shield season for the Blues, but questions remain about his ability to transfer that success to Test level.

    The promising Sam Whiteman is likely to be out of contention for some time with injury. His fitness issues have made it difficult for him to build any really momentum as a challenger for the Test gloves.

    Alex Carey, having last season supplanted Tim Ludeman as South Australia’s first choice wicketkeeper and later been selected for Australia A, appears to be the most likely replacement for Wade. Despite talent with the bat, however, his first class record thus far leaves a great deal of room for improvement.

    A consistent second season at state level, and a chance to actually play with Australia A, is likely to be the best thing for his development.

    Of the genuine options, Nevill inspires the most confidence. He has Shield form and a very good first class average of 40 on his side, and is well regarded among selectors, fans and pundits as a wicketkeeper. If he could truly harness his batting ability he would add a great deal of stability to a Test side desperately in need of it.

    But whoever takes the gloves for Australia in the upcoming Ashes, the shades of Marsh, Healy and Gilchrist will haunt their every crouch.

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