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Has any role in cricket changed as much as that of the wicketkeeper? If anyone is qualified to know, it is Bruce French, who – as he retires as England’s wicketkeeping coach – can congratulate himself on a job well done.
Without French’s help, a generation of England keeper-batsmen would not have enjoyed long and lucrative careers, as he made specialist coaching fashionable as one of the first to concentrate on one skill. Now England have specialist coaches in spin bowling, seam bowling, batting, fielding and, of course, wicketkeeping with James Foster, one of French’s early pupils, taking over on a consultancy basis for the tour to South Africa.
When French played for Nottinghamshire between 1976 and 1995, it was still acceptable to be a keeper first and a batsman second. He averaged a modest 18 in both county and Test cricket. He batted above eight only four times in 21 Test innings and spent most of his time in the tail (either nine or 10). ESPNcricinfo crunched the numbers last summer and showed that 59 per cent of keepers over the past 20 years have batted seven in Test cricket. It was just 14 per cent between 1900-49, and 36 per cent for the second half of the last century.
French now believes a keeper has to be able to bat at least No 6 in county cricket to have a chance of a career. “I didn’t used to spend any time on my batting,” he says. “You didn’t even get a slot in the nets. You were the keeper. You would go in right at the end after the batters, and there wouldn’t be any coaches. If I was a player now I would work harder on my batting and would have been a bit better but I just loved keeping wicket and catching the ball. That feeling of nailing a catch; for me that gave me a kick more than anything else.”
French laments the lost art of keeping – players such as Keith Andrew, sublime keepers who were tail-end batsmen at best. Now the template is someone such as James Bracey, a talented batsman who can play in the top order and be turned into a keeper with a lot of hard work by a coach such as French.
Bracey only concentrated on keeping this time last year. By the summer he was in England’s extended Test squad, shadowing the Test team in case of a Covid-19 outbreak. French was thrilled with his progress.
“When I first started playing first class cricket I never dreamt I would be a keeper,” Bracey said. “They don’t tend to bat where I bat, so to me it always felt unfeasible, but I think now I have put some real time and effort into it, it is possible. A lot of the time it is treated as though a batter can keep. Essentially, it is treated less of an art.”
Just ask Ben Foakes. He is the most talented keeper of his generation, but has not played Test cricket for 18 months. Bracey says French uses Foakes as a yardstick for the likes of himself, Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow to emulate. “Bruce does not like the term ‘part-time’. He wants everyone to have high standards. Foakes is probably the most naturally talented of the current batch. He is the one that has had a lot of success purely as a gloveman.”
Michael Bates was the best keeper in county cricket but, in five years at Hampshire and Somerset, averaged only 19 with the bat and was out of the county game by the age of 25. He is now a keeping coach, who has worked with the England women’s team, and wrote a book last year the title of which tells you a lot: Keeping Up: Surviving as a specialist in a multidimensional world.
“My batting ultimately was not as good as my glovework and did get exposed,” he told the Back to the Pavilion podcast. “Because I was so good at keeping I got noticed for that and immediately labelled as a guy who is a brilliant keeper who can’t bat. I do think it was a bit unfair and was a monkey I could not shift. That reputation just built and built and got to me massively and was a hole I could not dig myself out of.”
Bracey has high hopes of being able to combine top-order batting with keeping in all forms of the game. He has studied footage of Jack Russell and Ian Healy and sees Kumar Sangakkara as his role model.
Combining hitting with keeping is a route to a money-spinning career in Twenty20 but surely there are times when the more skilful keeper could win a game with a smart stumping standing up to a quicker bowler or take a blinding catch.
Test cricket, as always, is the format that exposes any weakness. Buttler had a magnificent summer with the bat but less so with the gloves. French believes the wobble seam has made the job of keeping harder than in his day.
“It causes a lot of tension in the keeper because you know if the ball is coming straight you can line it up and catch it,” he says. “If it wobbles it can hit a different part of the hand or even miss your hand at the last minute. Even if it doesn’t wobble, the tension it causes means even the balls that come straight to you, you drop. It is a mental, as well as a technical challenge.”
“When I talk to the keepers today, it is crucial to have someone who has been a top-line keeper and had these feelings. Yes, there are technical things you need to know but you have to know how a keeper is feeling. I go and watch a game of cricket and someone will score a hundred and I won’t notice because I am watching the keeper. People say to me later, ‘Did you see that shot’? And I reply: ‘Not really – but I saw a good keeper.’”