With England wicketkeeper Matt Prior turning 32 in February, the time has come for team director Andy Flower and his coaching staff to start weighing up the various credentials of the Sussex man’s potential successors behind the stumps, with three men currently vying for the role.
Prior still has, in all probability, a good three to four years left in the Test match arena given that he is not overburdened with limited-overs duties with England—South Africa stumper Mark Boucher was 35 when forced to retire with an eye injury in July 2012.
However, anyone who knows how Flower’s detailed mind works will not be surprised at all if the Zimbabwean has already drawn up a short list of potential successors to take over from Prior, especially given the fact, as we saw only this summer in fact, that a player’s previously safe spot in the team can suddenly come to an end at any moment.
And, do not forget that it was only in May that Prior was named England Player of the Year for 2012-13, an announcement that seemed to precipitate the wicketkeeper’s worst run of form since he was recalled to the Test team in India in December 2008.
Not only that, but Flower will always have had a back-up keeper in mind in case his first-choice stumper broke a finger on the morning of a Test match, say, although only he, wicket-keeping coach Bruce French and a few other close confidants will have known the identity of who that was last summer.
One clue as to which keeper Flower would have chosen to stand in for Prior had he picked up an injury during the recent Ashes series could be gauged from the two squads England recently announced for their upcoming tour Down Under.
In the main 16-man Ashes party, England went for Yorkshire’s Jonny Bairstow to act as understudy to Prior for the five-Test series in Australia, while the Performance Programme squad opted for new Lancashire wicketkeeper Jos Butler to be their first-choice stumper.
But anyone who thinks that by getting the nod to be England’s No. 2 wicketkeeper in the forthcoming Ashes series Bairstow is now in line to be Prior’s successor behind the stumps for his country would be very much mistaken indeed.
And that is because the 26-year-old’s selection is borne more out of a desire to somehow fit the ginger-haired middle-order batsman into the touring party than any great belief that the Yorkshireman is England’s next best keeper.
In fact, Bairstow has barely kept wicket for the White Rose in any form of the game in recent years, meaning it is an enormous gamble on Flower and Co’s part to select him as their reserve stumper for this winter’s Ashes, bearing in mind he could be called upon to pull on the gloves in the crucial first Test in Brisbane should, say, Prior go lame on the first morning of the match.
However these days, as we have seen this summer with Butler in the limited-overs format with England, and before him also with Prior’s comeback into the Test team, hard work, commitment and a fine coach can turn a keeper with seemingly iron gloves into a world-class stumper.
The problem for Bairstow, though, is that not only does he have the most work to do when it comes to his actual wicketkeeping, which is obviously a big worry, but he also now has technical issues to sort out in his batting.
Consequently, England are much more likely to already have two other candidates in mind for when Prior does eventually decide to call it a day, the first of whom will be looking to continue to impress with his glove work for the performance squad Down Under this winter.
As we just touched on, Butler made enormous strides behind the stumps with England last summer in both the one-day and the Twenty20 arenas thanks to the huge amount of work that he and French have put in together since he first broke into the national setup against India in August 2011.
And, now that the 23-year-old has also just moved from Somerset to Lancashire in order to be able to keep more regularly in the County Championship (Craig Kieswetter was ahead of him at Taunton when it came to the four-day game), this improvement in his glove work should continue at Old Trafford under the guidance of former England coach and one-time Sussex keeper Peter Moores.
However, those England fans who know Butler simply as an unorthodox hard-hitting slogger maybe surprised to know that the West Countryman also has another gear to his batting that does not preclude him for playing Test-match cricket for his country.
In fact, last season Butler made nine appearances in the Championship for his former county, registering 508 runs at an average of 36.28, although he only kept wicket on three occasions following an early-season thumb injury to Kieswetter.
And now he hopes his move north will boost his chances of being the man to succeed Prior, although there also remains one other figure lurking in the shadows, and a man Butler knows only too well from his four-year stay at the County Ground.
That is, of course, Johannesburg-born wicketkeeper Kieswetter, who many experts were surprised to see left out of England’s Ashes squad to tour Australia this winter, but who may actually have the strongest claims of all to be Prior’s natural heir.
For one thing, unlike his two aforementioned rivals, the 25-year-old does actually keep wicket as his day job for Somerset, while he has also been in and around the England limited-overs setup since making his ODI debut against Bangladesh in Dhaka in February 2010.
And while his record in both the 50-over and 20-over formats is nothing to write home about—although, again unlike his two rivals, Kieswetter has actually managed to score a century for England—the Somerset stumper is, perhaps crucially, considered to be the best wicketkeeper on current form of the trio.
Not only that, but he is also without doubt the most naturally gifted batsman of the three, with former England captain Michael Vaughan stating on Radio 5 Live following the announcement of the Ashes tour party that he would have selected Kieswetter to be Prior’s backup Down Under this winter.
Kieswetter, who scored 584 runs in 11 Championship matches for Somerset last summer at an average of 34.35, may now have to wait his turn though to impress again in the international arena, with his former county teammate currently ahead of him in the England limited-overs pecking order.
Meanwhile, Bairstow may get the first opportunity to press his claims, with the bat at least, when the opening Test of the 2013/14 Ashes series gets underway at the Gabba in November.
However, do not be surprised at all if it is in fact Kieswetter who eventually gets the nod to replace Prior when the Sussex stumper does finally decide to hang up his gloves.