England's wicketkeeper policy risks costly damage

When Jonny Bairstow succumbed to the virus that afflicted most of the England team during the tour of South Africa, it was memorably suggested by one observer that it was the only thing he had caught all tour.

It was harsh, of course. And incorrect. But the devil has the best lines and, after a succession of spills, Bairstow had gained a reputation for fallibility that he may find hard to shed.

His miss on the second day here was horrible. Yes, the ball dipped before it reached him. And yes, on a more action-packed day, it might not have become such a topic of conversation. But it was, by the standards of Test cricket, unusually poor and will inevitably revive the debate on whether Bairstow is the man who should be keeping wicket for England. The sight of him struggling to take a succession of throw-ins from fielders in the final session was painful.

Bairstow is improving as a keeper. He went into this match having taken 17 catches in the first two Tests and requiring six more to beat Amal Silva's record of 22 dismissals (21 catches and a stumping) by a keeper in a three-match series. He suggests that, having worked on his "alignment" - where he stands when the ball is delivered - he is better positioned to take edges and better balanced to move sharply when required. A good leg side catch of Steven Finn went some way to proving the point.

But the number of dismissals in this series is at least as much a product of the helpful seam and swing conditions in which the first Test and-a-half were played and the experience and skill of England's two opening bowlers as it is any improvement in Bairstow. And if he has improved… well, Titanic probably bounced a little when it hit the ocean floor. It wasn't a cause for celebration.

Bairstow missed six chances in the four-Test series in South Africa and has dropped three catches and missed one stumping in the two-and-a-half Tests so far this series. Potential chances, such as the inside edge that Finn won off Kusal Mendis that evaded Bairstow by some way do not go against him.

But whichever way you look at it, there is a pattern emerging. And it's a pattern that sees the ball on the grass and the bowlers with their heads in their hands.

All keepers miss chances, of course. Even Alan Knott and Jack Russell. Matt Prior, struggling with an Achilles injury, endured an awful final Test on this very ground two years ago.

But they don't miss this many. And they don't miss them of this simplicity.

Chris Woakes, the unfortunate bowler, said all the right things in the press conference after play. But his reaction at the time - disbelief mixed with fury - told a different story. He knows that such moments might not only cost England a Test, but endanger his career. It was the third relatively straightforward chance Bairstow had put down off him in four Tests. On a flat pitch on which all four of England's seamer bowled admirably, Bairstow may have missed the chance that could have unlocked the game.

The seeds of this problem were sown long ago. Always seeking to compensate for the absence of a true allrounder, England have long sought to bolster their batting by picking a keeper good enough to score Test centuries. For a while, with the likes of Alec Stewart and Matt Prior excelling the role, it was a compromise that reaped a decent reward.

But, since England were wrong-footed by the injury-induced retirement of Prior, the balance has tipped too far towards batting and left them dangerously exposed behind the stumps.

They selected Jos Buttler as Prior's replacement in full knowledge that he was not the completed article with bat or gloves. Having done that, they might then have been expected to have struck with him through the inevitable slumps that followed.

Instead he was discarded - arguably, with his confidence shattered, for his own good - and has not played a first-class game since. It is therefore illogical to think of him as a potential replacement now: he has not shown he has corrected the faults that were responsible for his dropping.

Chris Read, while still a fine cricketer, has declined since his peak and was out-kept in a Championship match between Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire by Bairstow a few weeks ago. Besides, he is currently injured. James Foster, rated by Russell as the best keeper he has ever seen, is soon to retire and Steven Davies, who might be in the England side now but for a change of heart over whether he wanted to keep wicket a couple of years ago, is currently unable to win back the gloves for Surrey.

The reason for that might be the source of England's solution. In Ben Foakes, Surrey have the most promising keeper in England. He is half way through his first full season as first-choice wicketkeeper so is not, with gloves or the bat, the completed article. In an ideal world, he would undoubtedly benefit from a longer period learning in county cricket.

But England are not in an ideal world. And with two tours of Asia looming, it is essential they find someone who is more convincing standing up to the stumps than Bairstow. If he reprieves Virat Kohli or Cheteshwar Pujara - and nobody can be surprised if he does; we have seen plenty of warning signs - it could cost England the game. There are other contenders, notably Ben Cox (currently of Worcestershire but perhaps about to move) and John Simpson (of Middlesex) among them. But Foakes is also a fine player of spin bowling and really could develop into a top seven batsman in Test cricket.

Even if he wasn't, it is time for a change. With allrounders such as Woakes, Ben Stokes, and Moeen Ali already in the side, England do not so desperately need to compromise over their keeper. And Bairstow, now established as a first choice batsman, does not need the extra baggage this on-going struggle to prove himself with the gloves has become. It remains bizarre that a man who has such time with the bat appears so hurried when standing 20 yards further back with the gloves.

There is no faulting his hard work or commitment. But if hard work was enough, many of the thousands watching at Lord's today would be on the pitch.