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Sam Billings set for Fifth Test as England’s wicketkeeper merry-go-round continues


But England have used five wicketkeepers in that time, for various reasons. Ollie Pope (one Test due to Buttler’s injury), Ben Foakes (three Tests due to Buttler’s rotation), James Bracey (two Tests due to Buttler’s rest), and Jonny Bairstow (one Test due to Buttler’s paternity leave) have all had a go.

This week in Hobart, that number is likely to swell to six, if Sam Billings is handed a debut.

Billings was in two Test squads in the summer and, despite some badly-timed injuries hampering his white-ball career with England, has been the beneficiary of some good fortune this time.

Buttler and Bairstow both have hand injuries (the latter could play in Hobart, but will not be able to keep wicket). Pope proved an able stand-in for a day in Sydney, but his future is as a batter.

Foakes and Bracey (another whose future should be seen as a batter) went home with the England Lions before Christmas (a decision bemoaned by some, but absolutely correct around the festive season and in the era of Covid restrictions). Jamie Smith, another keeper ahead of Pope in the queue at Surrey, was also with the Lions.

Billings has been performing well for Sydney Thunder in the Big Bash, and received the call from England after the injury Buttler but before Bairstow’s. The second injury made the decision a simpler one. He was due, a couple of hours later, to fly home with Saqib Mahmood to prepare for the T20 tour to Barbados, but was soon careering nine hours down Australia’s East Coast in a rented Honda Civic with seven bags in the boot, accumulated from four months on tour since September. He will travel to the Caribbean when his Test duties are complete.

It is unfortunate that Buttler, a good friend of Billings, misses out with injury, but it would be sensible to put a full stop on a curious Test career now. He has played 57 times, and it has never quite worked for a sustained period. Overall, though he has been serviceable: a batter who has flickered, never quite developing a method across 100 innings; a tidy wicketkeeper lacking some presence.

This is a sad end. Despite digging in hard in Adelaide and some fine catches, the abiding memories will be negative: shelling Marnus Labuschagne, the week he went top of the rankings; treading on his stumps after his epic rearguard; that awful shot on Boxing Day.

And so it was in Sydney, where he did well to survive 10 overs after a pain-killing injection on a finger break described by Joe Root as “quite serious”. It is easy to see why England have invested so much time in Buttler, but now is time to move on.

It would seem sensible for the Foakes era to begin when England play West Indies in March. He is 29 next month, and has waited long enough for the proper run his talent deserves. He cannot live up to the expectations of his strongest supporters, but he will keep beautifully, and bat well.

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