Most village cricketers fancy themselves as wicketkeeper. They might be the tallest, gangliest, most uncoordinated members of the team but to them it all looks so easy. You’ve got the gloves, you’ve got the pads and you can add further protection at your discretion. You can even wear a helmet just in case your spin bowler’s radar is a bit awry.
Wicketkeeping has become an art form of its own as cricket has developed. These days, players like Sussex’s Matt Prior practice even simple ball-catching drills for hours on end. You need to be agile, ambidextrous and have mental and physical stamina. The reward is that you’re involved in the game all the time.
Prior is one of a long line of great Sussex stumpers going back to club’s formative years in the mid-19th century when Harry Phillips was regarded as one of the best ‘keepers of the Victorian era and a player who changed the nature of wicketkeeping during his prime years.
Until 1873, captains, whether their 'keeper was taking to fast bowlers or spinners, employed a long stop in case they missed the ball. The long stop would stand almost directly behind the ‘keeper on the boundary edge and prevent any fumbles or inside-edges going for four runs.
Phillips was different to other keepers of his era, and it was a surprise to his contemporaries that he never won England recognition. Not only was he equally strong to his right or left, he was nimble on his feet and had the gift of excellent eyesight.
Against Gloucestershire in 1873, Phillips became the first wicketkeeper to dispense with the long stop. Bowlers were getting quicker, although nowhere near the speeds of current players, but such was the faith he had in his ability that Phillips felt capable enough to do away with the backup. “There you go skipper,” he might have said. “Put the long stop somewhere more useful.”
Phillips played 216 first-class matches for Sussex, taking 339 catches and 184 stumpings. In 1872 he caught five and stumped five Surrey batsmen at the Oval and while he had no great pretensions as a batsman, he did score 111 against a strong Australian attack in 1884.
He died aged 75 in his native Hastings in 1919 and his Wisden obituary noted: “Phillips was always the cheeriest of cricketers. No day was long enough to damp his good spirits."