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A history of Australia's wicked wicketkeeping

(Wiki Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Roar Guru
18th November, 2017
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When Sir Donald Bradman chose his best world XI from the players he’d seen, Queensland’s Don Tallon was not only the wicketkeeper but the number six batsman.

The Don reasoned the batsmen before Tallon and the allrounders and bowlers behind him were so good that the team could afford to have Tallon so high in the order, and the keeper from the unbeaten 1948 Ashes tour of England was capable with the willow.

When Alan Davidson speaks of cricketers he rhapsodies about Tallon as a freakish one-of-a-kind player who stands above all other keepers.

And what was Tallon’s batting record?

He averaged 17.13 in 21 Tests, including a 92 that remained the highest score by an Australian keeper until Rod Marsh became Australia’s first keeping century-maker.

That 17.13 would be unlikely to get Tallon a start in the Australian Test team today, no matter how freakish his keeping.

Compare that with fellow Queenslander Ian Healy, who a panel chose in the best Australian team of the 20th century. Unchallenged as the best keeper of his time, Healy also added the bonus of scoring 4,356 runs at 37.39, including four centuries and 22 fifties, to add to his 395 keeping dismissals.

It’s forgotten now what a good, aggressive and fast-scoring batsman Healy was, because he was succeeded by another freakish one-of-a-kind player in Adam Gilchrist.

The Tallon-Healy comparison is made because therein lies an explanation of how Australian selection thinking has gone from the Davidson-rhapsodised Tallon to Matthew Wade and beyond.

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In seeking that explanation it’s necessary to go back.

(AFP Photo/Tony ASHBY)

Bert Oldfield was Tallon’s revered predecessor. Oldfield kept in the spinning days of Grimmett-O’Reilly and Fleetwood-Smith, explained by his 78 Test catches but 52 stumpings. He also averaged 22 with the bat including four 50s, just borderline by today’s requirements.

Fast forward and Tallon’s main successor was Gil Langley, 26 Tests and just a miserable 14.96 with the bat, including one 50.

Then came the much-loved Wally Grout, who has a place in the Australian vernacular through the colloquial “Whose Wally?” question of who has the next shout.

This is true superstardom, but in his time Grout’s wicketkeeping and nous were more important. He was a champion behind the stumps but averaged just 15.08 with the bat, with three 50s.

His long-time deputy, Barry Jarman, succeeded him and was even a stand-in Test skipper for Bobby Simpson, but he averaged 14.81 with the bat, including two 50s. Pitiful.

Jarman’s successor, Brian Taber, was little better with the stats, averaging 16.04 in his 16 Tests but with no 50s.

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What Tallon and his successors had in common was that they weren’t in the Test team for their good looks and batting – though they could score runs at Sheffield-Shield level and hold up an end in Tests. They were there because they were the best keepers. It was the Australian way.

The England way had often been to select batsmen who could keep, such as Les Ames and Jim Parks. Alec Stewart is a late example. Australian attempts at the England way, as with Wayne Phillips on the 1985 Ashes tour, have been unhappy experiments.

Taber was still the best Australian keeper when chairman of selectors Bradman insisted Rod Marsh be given the gloves.

It’s forgotten Marsh’s nickname became ‘Iron Gloves’ because of his early fumbles at Test level, though he improved at the caper, enough to make 355 dismissals in his 96 Tests.

But Marsh was also a trendsetter. Though his batting fell away after World Series Cricket, Marsh was good enough to earn a spot as a batsman in the first half of his career. His bald average of 26.51 doesn’t do justice to how good a bat he was.

(Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)

Australia was lucky to have Healy then come along as a genuine keeper-batsman, but they were blessed to then have the batting Gilchrist, who could change the course of a game in a few overs and whose wicketkeeping was serviceable, if not of the highest rank.

Gilchrist’s like won’t be seen again, but Australia was lucky again to then have the aggressive Brad Haddin, an outstanding keeper and a rapid-fire bat good enough to score four centuries.

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Lucky indeed – though more attention is paid to batting practice as part of a keeper’s duties than in the Tallon-Grout times, it’s been a lottery win to have Marsh-Healy-Gilchrist-Haddin come along in succession.

That can’t be the norm, but it’s why a Peter Nevill, an automatic selection as the best keeper under the old Australian way, is ditched – because he can only average 22.68 with three 50s in his 17 Tests. It’s why a Matthew Wade is picked – he could be in the Marsh-Healy-Gilchrist-Haddin mould.

A Nevill average of 22.68? A selector once would have taken that from a keeper any Test of the month as a bonus.

The current selectors could have learnt a lesson from history. Instead they’ve picked Tim Paine, with selection head Trevor Hohn saying the 32-year-old Paine, who hasn’t played a Test for seven years, is the best keeper in Australia.

Presumably Paine’s 35.87 average and two 50s in his previous four Tests since his previous go might have swung it. He fielded in first slip while Wade kept wickets in Tasmania’s last Shield game and hasn’t been scoring runs.

Some things, like Donald Trump’s ascent and behaviour as US president are beyond rationality. Even if he should score a century and take ten stumpings in the first Test, Paine’s selection falls into that category. Beyond rationality.

Perhaps the selectors were shouting “Whose Wally?” when picking the squad.

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