Twenty20 cricket should be the perfect platform for the world’s natural wicket-keepers to prove their worth, according to one of the best the game has produced.
As the shortest format gets its latest season underway, Jack Russell has challenged counties up and down the country to pick their best keeper as they set off on the quest for the domestic season’s first piece of silverware.
Artisans of a trade Russell, complete with trademark sunhat, helped to popularise over more than two decades with Gloucestershire and England, have found themselves increasingly marginalise by a ‘batsman first’ mentality in the modern game.
So much so there was even a sight in a season past where Worcester’s director of cricket Steven Rhodes, himself a former gloveman, instructed wicket-keeper Ben Cox to ditch the gauntlets and pads at the death of a tight group game in favour of fielding at fly slip instead.
Yet Russell argues in a format where big hits and improvised shots appear to be king, it is in reality a game of small margins where, having your best wicket-keeper on duty, regardless of whether they can bat or not, can be the difference between winning and losing.
“In T20 you can play a wicketkeeper who doesn’t bat if he is your best keeper because in theory he should bat at 10 or 11 and not get in,” he said.
“The importance of a keeper in T20 is the winning margins are so fine, sometimes just two or three balls. Half an over each way is the difference between win and lose.
“So although in theory he is catching less balls the ones he is catching are more critical. It can be just the one wicket that makes the difference. Get Chris Gayle out, get Brendan McCullum out it can win you the game. That one ball and one catch can decide the game.
“I don’t know how many years ago it was, but James Foster played for England in T20 and I saw him make two stumpings. The one at Lord’s was a game changer – it won England the game. So we must not lose sight of the keeper in T20 and think it is all bash, bash.”
Russell, now 52, claims sacrificing your best keeper in favour of extra batting strength is nothing new, tracing it back to the days of JT Murray and Jim Parks more than half a century ago.
And indeed he was sacrificed from the England set-up in favour of Alec Stewart as the selectors sought a new balance in the post Ian Botham era.
While he accepts the swing towards batsman/wicket-keepers instead of the reverse has gathered pace over more recent times, it is a seed change he remains uneasy with, arguing it can be a false economy, perhaps especially in an age when all forms of the game appear to be played more aggressively.
“In the longer formats these days batting is the priority and there is a level of tolerance on the keeping,” he added.
“That does not sit very well with me because I was not brought up like that. I understand what they are doing, but I’m still worried they are neglecting the wicketkeeper and the effect he can have.
“If you drop McCullum or whoever you like and they go on and get 200, then as a keeper you have got to score 200 before you are in front. Plus, if you are trying to win games and take 20 wickets then every dismissal is critical. So that aspect in the game today does worry me.”