@Ben_Wisden 5 minute read
Ben Gardner was at Old Trafford to witness Ben Foakes’ first home Test hundred, an innings which went some way to answering the questions that had begun to be asked about him, and demonstrated the role he can play in England’s new era.
Perceptions and statistics can be funny things. The former are easy to form and hard to shake. The latter are, on the one hand, entirely in a player’s control, but, on the other, malleable to say nearly anything you need them to. Catch a damning one at just the wrong time and it can be fatal.
Before today, Ben Foakes found himself battling against both. He came into the game averaging 22.60 in this, his first home season as a Test cricketer. This was misleading to an extent; Lord’s was Foakes’ first bad game of the summer. The first time round at the Home of Cricket, he shared an unbeaten century stand with Joe Root to win the game, with the innings rated as being worth more than the 32 runs it amounted to before being broadly forgotten. At Trent Bridge, there was a half-century to help England up near New Zealand’s total, before an unbeaten 12 to see the side home after the Jonny Bairstow carnage. Then he tested positive halfway through Headingley, also missing Edgbaston as a result. But there is only so much massaging an average nearing the teens can receive.
And at Lord’s, it wasn’t the low scores themselves that were the issue; it was what came before them. He was worked over and worked out by Anrich Nortje. In the first innings, the final 11 balls of his 17-ball knock were all bowled by Nortje, and saw Foakes contorting, prodding, gasping for air, before his off-stump was ripped out of the ground. In the second, it took the Protean prowler just two balls, a loose one down leg and then a 92mph sucker ball that Foakes fiddled through.
This both was and wasn’t a new problem for Foakes. Up until this summer, he had played all but two of his nine Tests on slow, low tracks in Asia and the Caribbean. But on his first visit to the West Indies, in 2019, his previous examination by fast bowlers on fast pitches, he had been found wanting. Having come into the rubber as England’s newly enshrined golden boy, Player of the Series in Sri Lanka, flawless behind the stumps and not far off that in front of them, he was discarded two Tests later, with Kemar Roach and Shannon Gabriel casting their spell. Being able to play proper fast bowling is what can separate the solid county grinders from the capable Test cricketers. Foakes was in danger of being boxed off as an artist with the gloves and a workman with the bat. The tag of being flawed against the quicks is one that can stick.
The murmurs had already begun. Harry Brook, England’s designated Next Cab and in the form of his life, was being forced to wait on the sidelines, and, once Zak Crawley was backed, the only way to get him would be to give the gloves to Jonny Bairstow and send Foakes on his way. England were 1-0 down, and facing questions over the make-up of their side for the first time in the McCullum era. Foakes came to the middle with England 147-5 and still trailing, the consequences of failure bubbling under. Had they squandered their advantage, and with it, the series, a dead rubber and a chance to experiment would have beckoned. And of course, Nortje had the ball in his hand.
Foakes’ first few balls inspired little confidence, with Nortje softening him up before Kagiso Rabada almost capitalised, an inside-edge instead bringing a first, streaky boundary. But, as will happen for a Test No.7, he had come in against tiring bowlers towards the end of a pair of spells. Next over, he faced up to Simon Harmer, who delivered a friendly full toss which was driven sweetly for four. Then Lungi Ngidi, just as skilful but not quite as quick as Nortje and Rabada, came into the attack. By the time Nortje returned, Foakes was on 43. He clipped the first ball he faced, bowled at 86mph, for a single. On 46, a controlled pull shot off a fast bumper past fine leg brought another single. These were small steps, but important ones too. It’s natural for a player grooved in the county game to be unused to speeds up past 90. Often, the only practice they will get is in a Test match itself. Players are allowed to get better, and by the time Foakes brought up his hundred, reaching out to slice down to the third man fence, those troubles seemed a distant memory. Fittingly, it was Nortje off whom he brought up his milestone.
Foakes will surely face similar questions again, and at times he will fail. It is rare for a No.7 to not have a weakness or two, and this was a slower pitch than Lord’s, with South Africa behind in the game and lacking some intensity in the second of back-to-back Tests. But having endured, looked within, and survived showed that Foakes is capable, with time, of figuring out his own solutions.
This was an innings to showcase Foakes’ established strengths too. South Africa had picked two spinners, understanding Old Trafford’s reputation for taking turn, and Foakes’ most significant moment of fortune showed just how much there was to work with. Keshav Maharaj’s delivery would have been a Ball of the Century contender had Foakes’ pad not been in the way, and had it not gripped so significantly that ball-tracking showed it both pitching outside leg and missing leg stump. Apart from that, Foakes’ maneuvring and defence against high-quality spin was on full display.
His other significant quality is that he’s not really a No.7, which is good because it’s not what England need. Their tail, with Stuart Broad now ensconced in the Nighthawk role at No.8, is so brittle that a lower-order shepherd loses some of its value. Instead, with the top order still fallible and the middle order pivotal, Foakes’ ability as a proper batter is vital. “At Surrey I bat five, and I can just play,” he explained at stumps. He is an arch-partnership constructor, at ease with letting whoever he’s batting with do their thing while he does his own, ticking along, rotating, and building all the while.
It might seem a role ill-fitting of a McCullum Test side, but there is a precedent. BJ Watling was the slow heartbeat of Baz’s Black Caps, a tidy gloveman and a shirker of the limelight, but a crucial counterpoint to the carnage that often unfolded elsewhere. In Foakes’ company, Stokes played his most sensible innings as a Test captain, and his best too. Even the fieriest concoction sometimes needs a little ice to bring out the flavour.
A Foakes hundred doesn’t come with a Bairstow roar, or carry the inevitability of a Root ton or the promise of power that Stokes brings. Instead, he looks comfortable doing what he knows he can, and learning to do what he yet can’t. Foakes may just have found his place.