Thursday, April 26, 2007

Playing for keeps

England's 'keeper, with his age on his back.
One of the few heartening things to come out of the winter for England was the wicketkeeping of Paul Nixon. He was ebullient, noisy and effective, while he was pretty solid with the bat too. He kept the team more or less organised in the field and was relentlessly cheerful and upbeat. With the exception of Kevin Pieterson and Ravi Bopara he was probably the only England player to enhance his reputation at the World Cup. I'm pretty confident, however, that he won't be donning the gauntlets for the opener against the West Indies on May 17 at headquarters.
There's one very simple reason for this: he's 36 years old. Edward Pearce, whose interest in this question can readily be appreciated, has written in defence of Nixon, and in opposition to age-based discrimination. I sympathise with the general tenor of his argument, but he does himself few favours.
Nixon has performed, in tests and one-day internationals, well above his brilliant, but somehow not awfully successful, young predecessors. He has taken the catches and recurrently got the vital 40 or 50 to stave off a collapse.
Nixon is a good solid cricketer, but in one day internationals he averages 21, and has never hit a 50 (though his top score is 49). Geraint Jones, the probable alternative for the World Cup, averaged 25, with 4 fifties. Nixon played well - but probably not significantly better than Jones. I've looked at One Day Internationals rather than Test matches incidentally, because even though Pearce thinks Nixon has performed very well in them, he has managed this despite the handicap of never having played in one.
As for the rest of Pearce's argument, sport must surely be the one area where discrimination on the grounds of age is not a bad thing. In sport you either pick for the future or the immediate. For the World Cup Nixon was an inspired choice. But at 36, performing a role where flexibility, reactions and concentration are more important than any other, he has a very limited professional future. Picking him for the Test against the West Indies would be pointless - he won't be playing for more than a year, and there are exciting possibilities like Steven Davies of Worcestershire and even the James Foster who Pearce derides as a poor pick. I sympathise with Pearce's view, but international sport is not the best place to complain about agism.
UPDATE: Or possibly not... "The wicket-keeping position remains a competitive area - Paul Nixon and Matt Prior have been included in the squad but will be aware that they face strong competition from keepers outside of the squad." There goes my record as a pundit...

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