In the lead-up to the Ashes, fresh claims emerged that Tim Paine, who doubles as Australia’s premier Test wicket keeper and Test captain, was not, in fact, Australia’s best wicket keeper.
Cricket is a statistics-based game, moreso than most other sports. For batsmen, it is their batting average that is the primary indicator as to their skill, for bowlers it is their bowling average. While things like recent averages, recent scores, scores against different opponents and in different conditions can be relevant, those are still statistics. Rarely do players with poor statistics get in ahead of players with good ones, and if they do, as has been the case of the Marsh brothers and Cameron Bancroft recently, then fans get pretty upset, especially when there are players with better statistics who are missing out.
And yet, for some reason, when it comes to wicket keepers, we suddenly forget that statistics exist. Oh sure, we can then pretend that they are batsmen, and prefer one wicket keeper over the other because their batting record is better, but that’s not actually the indicator for a good wicket keeper. It’s no more an indicator for a good wicket keeper than it is for a good bowler, or that fielding skill makes us prefer a weak batsmen. Such great fieldsmen get in as professional 12th men, like Mike Veletta or perhaps Jonty Rhodes. Ah if only we were allowed to have them come in every game as our spare fielders.
But here is the problem: there actually is a statistical indicator for who is the better wicket keeper. It is an established statistical indicator too: it is called dismissals per innings. No, not per match, per innings. The problem is that it has Adam Gilchrist listed as the greatest wicket keeper who ever lived, and Ian Healy fans don’t like that. It also has Kamran Akmal right up there as the best who has ever played for Pakistan, and, given he dropped some catches against Australia that one time in Sydney, we all have to believe that he stunk too.
According to that indicator, Alex Carey is Australia’s best wicket keeper, the guy who dominated in the recent World Cup, who has been, statistically, Australia’s best wicket keeper for the past 3 years. Only South Africa’s Quinton de Kock is better at international level.
Two years ago, when Tim Paine was elevated to international honours, he wasn’t even playing at first class level on a regular basis. When he did, it was as a batsman underneath Matthew Wade. How ironic is it that Matthew Wade has now returned to test level as a pure batsman under Tim Paine! And yet we are told to ignore the fact that, for the best part of the past 10 years, there was a gulf in wicket keeping skill between Wade and Paine, with Wade winning very, very easily.
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In that time, Wade wasn’t always Australia’s number one wicket keeper. After all, we had Peter Nevill rightly elevated to Test level. Brad Haddin had his moments in 2013 and 2014 as well. And, perhaps, Tim Paine did elevate to a rich vein of form, a la Haddin in 2013-2014. But, like Haddin, it is a bubble, and it does not in any way suggest that Paine is the better keeper (nor was Haddin, incidentally). The question is not so much whether Paine is a better keeper than Carey. The question is when and how they change positions.
Matthew Wade, like it or not, is out of contention for now, and, perhaps, for the rest of his career. It wasn’t that he dropped too many catches or was actually bad in any real way so much as Ian Healy on commentary said that he was bad, and sometimes that’s enough.
Alex Carey dropped two catches in the World Cup too, it should be noted, and that is all it has taken for some to claim he is worse than Paine. After all, Paine never makes a mistake.
Dropping catches can be an indicator, as can conceding byes, but if that was an indicator then Brad Haddin would never have been close to the Australian side, and nor would Paine.
Like it or not, the wicket keeping position isn’t about statistics. It’s about popularity. Ian Healy got in ahead of the better keepers Greg Dyer and Tim Zoehrer because he was liked more, and he kept out the far more impressive Adam Gilchrist because of Shane Warne’s recommendation.
Tim Paine doesn’t have quite the level of support that Healy had, and he will be dumped eventually. Perhaps when Smith’s captaincy ban ends in March we will return to Smith as test captain and perhaps soon afterwards Carey will become Australia’s next test keeper.
For now we have to bury our heads in the sand and pretend that Tim Paine is our best keeper and our best captain, not because he actually is, but because it’s better teamwork for us to pretend.