Who is the best wicketkeeper that Warwickshire has ever had? There are six great names in the frame and Brian Halford considers the candidates.
Dick Lilley (1888-1911)
First class: 321 matches; 524 catches, 136 stumpings
Dick Lilley (pictured above) was the first great Warwickshire wicketkeeper and could reasonably be described as the Bears’ first proper keeper at all. Until the 1890s, keepers were often little more than backstops there to prevent byes, but suddenly they started standing up to the stumps much more with all the skills that required.
Birmingham-born Lilley played in the Bears’ inaugural first-class match in 1894, having been a pivotal member of the team which had earned first-class status just 12 years after the club’s formation. For 23 years he was a first-team regular while also becoming the first Warwickshire player to play Test cricket. In the so-called ‘Golden Age,’ when great players abounded, Lilley played 35 Tests – equivalent to three times than number today as there were far fewer Tests played back then.
Also an accomplished batsmen (he scored 15,597 first-class runs), Lilley truly set the mould for all the great Bears keepers that were to follow.
‘Tiger’ Smith (1904-1930)
First class: 444 matches; 666 catches, 139 stumpings
Few men, if any, have given more to Warwickshire cricket than Tiger Smith whose service to the club as player and coach spanned well over half a century. He was a forceful batsman, even when opening the batting (what a T20 player he would have been) but his principal expertise was behind the stumps.
Tiger distinguished himself for decades for Warwickshire and, more briefly for England, for whom he played11 Tests. These included the triumphant Ashes series of 1911/12 when the Australian batting was blown away by Bears captain Frank Foster.
Smith’s experience of keeping, and standing up to, the rapid Foster was invaluable during this tour, not least when he executed perhaps the most brilliant stumping in the history of Test cricket to dismiss Aussie skipper Clem Hill off Foster for a duck at Melbourne.
Ever modest and likeable, Smith once reflected on his keeping: “I never dropped a single catch. Mind you, quite a few fell out…”
Dick Spooner (1948-1959)
First class: 312 matches; 525 catches, 157 stumpings
Dick Spooner played in seven Test matches for England. In another era, his neat, quick glove-work would have earned him many more caps but he was up against Kent’s Godfrey Evans who invariably got the nod from the southern-based selectors.
The most important attribute in a wicketkeeper is reliability. Taking a spectacular catch or two is always welcome but essentially bowlers want to know that if they force a nick, it will be pouched. Spooner’s work was often flawless.
The north-easterner was a great team man, another vital element for a keeper who is so central to the side out in the field, while he was also renowned for his concentration. On the hottest day, when almost nothing has got past the bat, if an edge came through at five to six, Dick would be alert to it.
Spooner was highly influential during the Bears’ 1951 championship triumph, taking 73 catches.
Geoff Humpage (1974-1990)
First class: 345 matches; 666 catches, 72 stumpings
Limited overs: 317 matches; 247 catches, 32 stumpings
Sparkhill-born Humpage put a police career on hold to pursue a career in cricket and spent the next 16 seasons patrolling behind the stumps for Warwickshire.
A late convert to wicketkeeping, Geoff played mostly during an era when the Bears’ bowling resources were thin so edges could be thin on the ground. But he snaffled enough during a mighty career to become the first keeper to pass 1,000 dismissals for the Bears. His best season, in 1985, brought him 80 dismissals.
A thrilling and destructive batsman, who could also play with great skill and care when required, he played three ODIs for England in 1981 but got little opportunity in them to show what he could do and unluckily never received another chance.
A brilliant team man, Humpage was a great mentor for many younger players with Allan Donald among those to list him as a big influence.
Keith Piper (1989-2005)
First class: 193 matches; 477 catches, 36 stumpings
Limited overs: 235 matches; 246 catches, 52 stumpings
Regarded by many people as the most naturally gifted wicketkeeper they ever saw, Piper also sits on the short-list for another upcoming Bears Greatest category – the Greatest Bears Player Never To Play Test Cricket.
Piper’s gloves just seemed to invite the ball into them, even when it arrived at 90-plus mph. The sight of Piper, standing three quarters of the way back to the boundary, pouching edges from Allan Donald, bowling at his peak in 1995, was thrilling to behold. A true spectacle in itself.
Disciplinary issues meant that ‘Pipes’ played only a handful of representative games for England when his talent merited a long international career. The Bears, at least were blessed by his exquisite talent which was underpinned by a deep knowledge of the game.
Like all great keepers, Piper, from ‘the best seat in the house, was a source of great guidance for his captain and bowlers.
Tim Ambrose (2006-present)
First class: 190 matches; 559 catches, 33 stumpings
Limited overs: 221 matches; 172 catches, 48 stumpings
During the 2019 season, Tim Ambrose passed 1,000 dismissals for Warwickshire before a few weeks later going on to pass Geoff Humpage to move top of the all-time Bears list.
A top-class keeper is pivotal to a cricket team in many ways and ‘Amby’ has been exactly that at Edgbaston for more than a decade – and counting. A skilful batsman, often at his most productive when the team needs it most, he is a polished and reassuring presence behind the stumps, whether standing up or back.
His skills are delivered with a nous which brings another vital component to the team in all formats. Few people can read a pitch better than ‘Amby’. In one-day cricket, he will spot very early on what sort of target the Bears should be looking to set or, if chasing, how they should pace the pursuit.
In many ways, Amby, like all the best keepers, is the heart of the team.
Cast your vote
To vote for Warwickshire’s Greatest Wicket-Keeper, simply complete the below form. Everyone who submits their vote will be entered into a prize draw to win a signed Warwickshire shirt.
Voting closes at 5pm on Tuesday 5 May and the winner will be announced on Wednesday.