Foakes is set to keep wicket from the second Test onwards with Jos Buttler rested
As Ben Foakes picked up his oversized Player-of-the-Series cheque following England’s clean sweep in Sri Lanka in November 2018, it was unthinkable – barring injury – that he would play only two out of their next 18 Test matches. But after a pair of underwhelming games in the Caribbean two months later he was squeezed out of the side, and with Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler ahead of him in the pecking order, he has found it impossible to get back in.
Heading into the impending series in India, Foakes has an opportunity to show England what they have been missing. Buttler is due to fly home after the first Test, with Bairstow already back in the UK as the ECB rest and rotate their multi-format players, clearing the way for Foakes to take the gloves from the second Test onwards.
“Obviously the way I started in Sri Lanka, I did expect to play for longer,” Foakes told the media from his hotel-room quarantine in Chennai on Sunday. “I did expect to get more of a run at that stage. I guess it’s tricky to control your emotions in that sense: I obviously got pretty high with all the things going on then and it gets taken away from you because I didn’t get runs in the West Indies. It happened so quickly.
“It’s a tricky thing to get your head around I guess. I didn’t perform as well as I’d have liked when I went back to Surrey, had a bit of a break from cricket and came back pretty fresh and performed alright.
“I know the strength of competition with the keepers is so high [that] there are going to be times when I’m not playing. That’s something I have to accept and be at peace with. If I do get a chance at any stage just try to enjoy it and embrace it, and do as well as I can.”
The past 12 months have been frustrating for Foakes. After being named in the Test squad to tour Sri Lanka last year, he admitted in an interview with ESPNcricinfo that he had felt “burned out” by the end of the 2019 season, in which he averaged 26.13 in first-class cricket for Surrey.
As a result, he took some time off the following winter rather than travelling to Australia with the Lions or seeking out a chance to play franchise cricket, and travelled to Sri Lanka with his love for the game rekindled. Two weeks later, the squad flew home with the Covid pandemic sending the world into lockdown, and he had to endure the frustrations of a summer running drinks while in the Test bubble as cover for Buttler.
Foakes was man of the series in England’s clean sweep in Sri Lanka in late 2018 Getty Images
Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that he is phlegmatic in his outlook on his imminent recall. “I haven’t had as much cricket as I would like in the last year and a half so I’ll just try to get back into competitive cricket and give it my all,” Foakes said.
“I would expect it’s probably a case of Jos is the number one, and I’m just seeing these three games as a chance to try and stake my claim and do as well as possible and enjoy playing for England, and enjoy the experience.
“India is an incredible place to play: [they have] a star-studded line-up and a country that is so passionate about the game. To get an opportunity out here would be amazing and something I’m really looking forward to.”
If Foakes is somewhere near his best in India then the debate around England’s keeping options will doubtless rumble on. With the bat, he is excellent against spin but unproven against the quicks and lacks Buttler’s panache; with the gloves, Buttler has made clear strides in recent months but there remains little doubt that Foakes is the better keeper.
And while he was fulsome in his praise for Buttler – “he’s been amazing, he’s a world-class player” – Foakes provided a glimpse into his own thinking on the role of the modern wicketkeeper when asked by a local reporter about his take on India’s parallel situation, which sees Wriddhiman Saha competing with Rishabh Pant.
“I think you need a blend of both,” Foakes said. “You can’t have someone that can’t keep who is scoring loads of runs but makes loads of mistakes, but at the same time, however good a keeper is, they’re going to have to contribute with the bat.
“It depends on a few things, like the balance of the side – I suppose if you’ve got a batting line-up that is banging out 600 every time then you go for a specialist keeper, but if you want a frontline batter then potentially you sacrifice a bit of the keeping ability.”
Performances in the coming weeks will help England determine which combination they think is more attractive.
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @mroller98