@Ben_Wisden 5 minute read
Ben Foakes is far from a certainty in the England XI, writes Ben Gardner, but in the third Test against Pakistan he has provided a reminder of his qualities.
Ben Foakes is England’s next man out, the first to make way, the player whose grip on his spot is least secure. This has always been true, right back from his first forays into the Test game, when he was left out two games after being Player of the Series in an overseas whitewash. Behind and in front of the stumps he conveys permanence and security, but his career has existed in a constant state of flux. This is now his 18th Test appearance, but through a combination of injury, illness and ill fortune, six is the most he has played in a row.
And before the Karachi Test began, many were calling for this to be a one-game stint, an air of heavy-hearted inevitability accompanying the claims that, when Jonny Bairstow is back, Foakes is the only one who can make way. He might now have given them pause to reconsider.
This Test hasn’t been an explosive statement, Foakes showing his doubters wrong with a display of exhilarating brilliance. Instead it serves as another reminder of his understated but inescapable qualities. With the bat, Foakes will rarely stand out, at least not in this current England line-up. He won’t make the range-hitting compilations in the practice sessions that are really machismo contests. The first time he tried to hit a six at Karachi, he holed out. But before that he offered a trademark careful deconstruction of Pakistan’s attack, taking his time, nudging rather than plundering, a gentle hand on the tiller guiding England through choppy waters. His first boundary took 20 balls to arrive, having managed just a single in his first 19. He was content to soak pressure when it came, seeing out a 17-ball stretch off Abrar Ahmed and Nauman Ali for two runs later on. But he also put pressure back at times, coming down the track on the attack and ticking over to Harry Brook whenever he could.
Only by England’s standards would his innings be considered sluggish, but it was also exactly what they needed, with Brook desperate for a proper partner to see England up towards parity. There’s an argument that England would be better served with Foakes at six, as the foil to whichever firecracker is at the other end, with Ben Stokes better placed to extract value from the tail. In any case, Foakes stands as a test of the philosophy, whether it really is about expressing yourself freely in whatever guise that comes, or if you have to fit a mould to fit in. He looks comfortable in the shirt now, but whether that’s enough for England remains to be seen.
Where he does make the highlight reel is behind the stumps, and in the first innings a creative take low to the ground, round the stumps to run out Babar Azam was so much tougher than he made it look. Leaving out the better keeper and burdening a top-order batter with the gloves is about the most traditionally English thing Stokes has done so far, and the value of a true gauntlet-artist is hard to measure, and therefore over- and under-emphasised on both sides of the debate. But in this case, Babar was 78 not out and his partner would go onto a half-century. Pakistan were 219-5, and finished up 304 all out. Should England win, it deserves to be considered a key contribution.
With the bat, this was Foakes’ fourth important contribution of the Stokes-McCullum era. At Lord’s, his slow-heartbeat 32 aided Joe Root’s effervescent hundred in an unbroken 120-run stand. How smoothly would the new regime have set in had that first Test been another forlorn tale of Rootian excellence among general batting decay? In the second Test of that series, he added a half-century to take England past 500, before being ruled out with Covid halfway through the third.
Back for the South Africa series he had his only truly poor Test since Stokes took over – in a game when the rest of England’s batters also struggled – but, along with his captain, ensured England levelled the series at Old Trafford, to the fore as the old-world technician in the toughest batting conditions England had conquered to that point. He made only 14 at The Oval, but that was England’s third-highest score of the innings and they still won by nine wickets. Then he got ill again, and then was left out so England could cram in an extra bowler – plus ça change… – and now here we are.
Even given all that, you can still see the case, harsh as it is, for him to make way when Jonny Bairstow – racing to be fit for the New Zealand Tests – returns. These are the good headaches to have, the cliche says, and now England’s is pulsing and throbbing. Neither of Brook and Bairstow can miss out, as England’s two best batters this year, and the latter could take the gloves from Foakes to fit everyone else in. The other options to keep Foakes in the side come with drawbacks, but are not unthinkable. Ollie Pope has seemingly made the No.3 spot his. He was excellent in the summer, especially in a ball-dominated series against South Africa, and notched a century in the Rawalpindi Test and two more fifties since. But he also averages only 32.56, a mere sliver above Foakes’ 32.40, and needs to keep producing.
Zak Crawley should, but probably won’t, be nervous. He is now three years into his Test career and is yet to show he can reliably deal with any sort of sideways movement, be it seam or spin. A century in the first Test showed his capabilities on flat pitches, but with four England batters making day-one hundreds, it also highlighted how basically every batter ever is better when the surface is smooth. Could Brook – or even Root – be promoted to open? Each is better suited to the middle order, but then you could say the same of Crawley’s skill-set, built for bullying bowlers when the lacquer is off. England have invested so much in him, and he is clearly talented, but they are now at the point where it’s not about a player having to be shown to be definitively not good enough to be dropped. Rather, England must to pick the best line-up from a wealth of choices. If Bairstow returns before the summer, England have a decision to make for their next Test. If not, that New Zealand tour stands out as vital for several ahead of the pre-Ashes shakedown.
Foakes remains the easiest player to leave out, but that doesn’t mean he’s the right one.