Ben Jones analyses a classic keeping debate, with a twist.
It is always easy to make sporting events about stories. It’s a kind crutch to see everything that happens as part of a larger image, as a piece in a bigger puzzle, as something grander than it is. In the mind of the writer, of the analyst, of the commentator, everything a player does forms part of the narrative of their life. Every frame a painting, every day a page.
At times it’s a grating affectation – and at times it’s entirely fitting. Today in Johannesburg, the latter was the case. Today, things felt like they were ending, like an era was tying itself up in a neat knot. Today, it felt like the last moments of Jos Buttler as a Test player.
Another innings without the solidity of a Test batsman, without the destructive abandon of an ODI batsman, has seemingly been enough to tip the collective scales against the England keeper. People have had enough, and have felt the lack of controversy elsewhere as the appropriate opportunity to draw a line under his stint as the gloveman in the England side.
The issue with the debate around Buttler, as it often is around keepers, is less about the people involved, than around ideology. Do you like keepers or do you not? Do you want to push their case as the fulcrum of the attack, the man through which everything flows, or do you see the fetishisation of their role as a hangover from an era long gone?
Proponents of Ben Foakes will, quite rightly, push his ability as a pure gloveman as evidence for his inclusion. Few will question his ability in this regard, and rightly so. According to our analysis of fielding ability, only one Test wicketkeeper has saved more runs-per-match in the last three years. It is without question that Foakes is an extremely talented keeper, who should not see his talents go unappreciated.
And so, let’s take this globally significant talent, and compare it to England’s current options. According to our fielding analysis, the sum ability of Foakes’ keeping superiority is an average of five runs a match, or 2.5 runs an innings, to keep the parlance of batting averages.
This isn’t a fair sample of course. Foakes’ having only kept in four innings may significantly increase or decrease the impact he offers, statistically, and we would avoid that if there were more detailed records kept in domestic cricket. Unfortunately, there aren’t for keeping – but there are for batting. If we combine the FC batting records of Foakes and Buttler then we can begin to see things a little more clearly.
Foakes is, on most obviously measurable levels, a better option. Yet the main difference comes not with the keeping gloves, but with the batting gloves.
People like to talk about keeping being an important aspect of the game. This could be for a few reasons. On one level it is clearly an influential aspect of the contest, as influential as any other perhaps, and it is given less attention than others because of a faint whiff of otherness, of a skill acquired away from the main huddle. It’s not like anything else in the game, and so many are nervous of holding forth on it.
However, in the opinion of this writer, a not inconsiderable element is the way that talking about it in detailed terms allows you to look like a connoisseur, a viewer who spots the subtleties and nuances that the casual viewer may not. Plenty of people speak about the importance of confidence that good keepers place in the bowlers, whilst in the same breath talking about the value of runs on the board. The benefits of keeping are, as is measurable, minimal.
Our measures may not be correct. They are not objective, and there could be plenty else which suggests greater influence. But for now, we go with this, we accept its assessment and judge things accordingly.
Foakes’ batting quality is tough to nail down. A Test century to his name, in alien conditions, but against an attack of lower quality than normal; a FC average of 40+ is impressive, but an average of 31 in the last two Championship seasons is not testament to a proven Test batsman. A brief purple patch in Test cricket should not mask the fact that whilst Foakes is competent with bat in hand, his work is not without issues, and is without the dominance in other formats to suggest he has a base level talent to back it all up.
And it’s hard, because Buttler is a genius. He is a better white ball batsman than any Englishman in history. He’s arguably a better white ball batsman than any Englishman has been a red ball batsman.
And yet, that ties into this story better than you may think. English cricket has been in a five year long attempt to bring a particular brand of beautiful cricket to the Test arena. It has done all it can to embrace its white ball stars, from Jos to Jason to Alex to Adil. In ODI cricket England had a dream, and they realised it more perfectly than anyone could have imagined. In the wake of that, in the midst of it, they tried to bring the raw joy of the 50 over team into the five day side, to carry the particular perfection of Bayliss’ white ball team into red ball cricket.
As is so often the case, utopia fought back, and didn’t want to be as amenable; San Junipero is a party town, and the party is ending.
England might be on the brink of a better Test side, of a more solid team with more measurable impact, more consistent performance. That is to be celebrated, as are the young men who will create it. But in that growth, there is a loss, the loss of a team that could have been, of a team that threatened to tear things up. That team may have been nothing but an illusion that we all bought into, the possibility of a team so entertaining that they could save Test cricket from the drudgery of four day finishes and 500+ chases.
That dream died today, and with it, English cricket’s dominance may well have been reborn. Whether that is for better or for worse – we’ll have to see.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.