Keeper distances himself from success of first Test call-up as he takes up Buttler role
You can understand why Ben Foakes is feeling some nerves ahead of his return to international cricket.
It’s been almost two years since he represented England, after all. And on that occasion, having won the player-of-the-match award on his ODI debut, he was dropped.
By then, England had already dropped him from the Test team. Not because he had done much wrong – he scored 48 runs in his last Test and kept as well as ever – but because the fragility of England’s batting had provoked a change of approach. Keaton Jennings came into the team in place of him with Jonny Bairstow reclaiming the gloves and slipping back from No. 3 to No. 7.
Which leaves Foakes with an odd and unwelcome distinction. He’s been player of the match in his only ODI and player of the series in his only full Test campaign. He could be forgiven for wondering what he has to do to win a longer run in the side.
Now he has a new opportunity. With Jos Buttler given a couple of weeks to recuperate at home – an admirably pre-emptive measure from the England team management to help mitigate against the pressures of life in the bio-bubble – Foakes is set to play the final three Tests of this series.
But he knows that whatever he achieves in the next few weeks, he’ll find himself out of the side again when Buttler returns. And he knows that he comes into the game with a big reputation – he is routinely referred to as the best keeper in England – but without the preparation time he would have liked. In a 12-minute press conference, he points out half-a-dozen times, in one or another, that he “hasn’t played for a while”. It’s almost as if he’s trying to lower expectations.
That would be understandable. He has played just two first-class games since the end of September 2019. To go into such a big game, in such demanding conditions, on what is expected to be a slow, low surface is a tough ask. But that’s the life of an understudy. And Foakes isn’t in a position to make too many complaints.
“It has been frustrating [not playing],” he says now. “But Jos has done such an amazing job over the last couple of years. It’s one of those situations where it’s very understandable
“Not playing has been tricky. Obviously you want to be involved. You have your good days when you’re training hard and you get the most out of it. But then it’s tricky at times, as well. I think every competitor wants to play. So when you go a long period without, it is a challenge.
“After my Test debut – with it going quite well [he scored a century, took a catch from his second delivery in the field and claimed a stumping, too] – I did think I’d get a bit longer run in the side. But international cricket is quite cut-throat and, after a couple of bad games, I was dropped. That’s the way it is.
“Watching how well Jos has done recently and the level he’s been performing, it is quite clear he is No. 1. So my mind-set has shifted a little bit. So every game and opportunity I get, I want to take it and kind of prove what I can do rather than looking too far ahead. It’s about taking every day as it comes and trying to enjoy it.”
Foakes’ success in Sri Lanka might, you would think, give him confidence for the challenge ahead. He coped with standing up the stumps admirably with his keeping one of the key differences between the teams. But it might also set a very high bar in terms of expectations. Foakes admits he has some “slight doubt” about his form right now.
“That [series in Sri Lanka] was more than two years ago,” he says, “so it’s not possible to see it as an extension of form. It was a fantastic time in my career, but this is a new challenge and I’m not really associating that performance with this.
“Without playing so much cricket, you always have that slight doubt where your game is at because you haven’t been tested for a while. But I’d like to think I’ve been training well and hopefully I’ll be able to get back into it quite quickly and find my rhythm.
“I’ve some excitement and some nerves. A bit of everything at the moment. But no, I’m not daunted. I hope the side is not weakened by me playing. You have confidence in yourself.
“I haven’t played as much as I’d have liked in the last couple of years, so it’s just trying to get back in and do a good job for the team.”
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo