Ben Foakes: Wisden Cricketer of the Year – The Almanack
@the_topspin 7 minute read
The Five Cricketers of the Year represent a tradition that dates back in Wisden to 1889, making this the oldest individual award in cricket. In 2023, Ben Foakes was one of the five.
Ben Foakes is used to the best seat in the house, though usually from behind the stumps. In 2022, the most memorable views came while batting, as he helped Joe Root and Ben Stokes secure a pair of Test wins that shaped an unprecedented summer. Against New Zealand at Lord’s, Foakes had joined Root with England five down and 118 short of victory, and unfussily saw them home. Nearly three months later at Old Trafford, he and Stokes added 173 to help level the series against South Africa. He had come of age.
At Lord’s, the first Test of the Stokes reign, Foakes had contributed an unbeaten 32 in two hours 20 minutes, but wondered at first where his next run would come from. Root, meanwhile, was “just walking at them and hitting them for four”. Foakes still sounds awestruck: “I was thinking, this guy’s a freak. To be there at the end, with Rooty playing that innings – that was as good as it gets.”
In Manchester, England – one down with two to play – were 147-5 in reply to South Africa’s 151, when he joined forces with the new captain. They consolidated, before Stokes accelerated. “I was outscoring him until 40 or so. Then he had a hundred when I had about 60. He’s got that extra level. It was amazing to watch.” Foakes finished unbeaten on 113, helping England to a decisive lead of 264.
On the delayed opening day of the decider at The Oval, his adopted home ground, he held four catches as South Africa collapsed, setting up a series-clinching win. And he was there again ten days later, helping Surrey claim the Championship with five more catches in a thrashing of Yorkshire. His contribution to the title had been crucial: 586 runs in nine matches at 73, including 86 and 42, both unbeaten, in the first of the wins over Yorkshire, at Scarborough. “For me, Championships are such a huge thing,” he says. “At Surrey, it’s what we pride ourselves on. It felt like we got everything right.”
To be an English wicketkeeper in the era of Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow has been to expect slings and arrows. Last year, as Foakes caught Covid, and later the bug that swept through the dressing-room in Pakistan, he also had to make way for Sam Billings and Ollie Pope. Recalled at Karachi, he scored a typically unflustered 64, repairing damage with Harry Brook. And he is more relaxed these days about the fragility of his role. “I deal with it better now. I probably catastrophised a bit when I was younger.”
BENJAMIN THOMAS FOAKES was born into a sports-mad family in Colchester on February 15, 1993. His dad, Peter, was a teacher-turned-football-referee, who officiated in the first two seasons of the Premier League, starting in 1992; his mum, Fiona, spent hours driving Ben to the Essex Academy. Matt, his older brother, piqued his competitive instincts: “I had a few tantrums in tennis, and a couple of broken rackets. I wasn’t the best loser to him.”
When Ben was 13, Peter – only just 60 – suffered a fatal heart attack, but a sporting life had been ingrained. Foakes junior owed much to Tony Stubbs, who ran the colts section at Frinton-on-Sea CC; at Chelmsford, he was entranced by the glovework of James Foster. Not that he was an easy convert to the job: “I was an opening bowler until 13 or 14, but we didn’t have a keeper in our Essex age-group. Everyone else said no, and I was the only one stupid enough to try. I didn’t really like it.” The antipathy remained until he was 18, and started working with former England wicketkeeper Bruce French. He has rarely looked back.
At 6ft 2in, Foakes is tall for a keeper: catching has always come more naturally than crouching for hours on end. He suffered a bulging disc before England arrived in the Caribbean last year, then had an epidural on his return – “the best three months of my life”. Pilates has helped. He has also shouldered the burden of expectation, after Alec Stewart, his director of cricket at Surrey – Foakes left Essex in 2014 – labelled him the world’s best wicketkeeper. The compliment didn’t go to his head, but it did drive him on: “You’ve got to put in the work to be as good as you can be.”
Stewart’s assessment is regularly recycled, in good times and bad, and Foakes’s England career has had both. He entered his first Test, at Galle in November 2018, full of doubt, only to score a superb century. Then came a lean tour of the Caribbean and, for two years – as England wrestled with the Buttler–Bairstow conundrum – that was that. “In Sri Lanka, I was Man of the Series and on cloud nine, then two games later you’re dropped,” he says. “It can be so up and down. If you allow that to affect you mentally, it’s not going to be helpful.”
When Foakes got another chance, in early 2021, it was during a nightmare trip to India, where he was not the only one to struggle on spinning pitches. Had he not torn a hamstring slipping in his socks in the Oval dressing-room that May, he would have kept against New Zealand. Instead, another year came and went, followed by another underwhelming trip to the West Indies. By the end of that tour, he had gone 18 Test innings without a fifty, stretching back to his debut series in Sri Lanka.
So while he was happy to begin the 2022 season with the gloves, he was also feeling the heat. His runs at Lord’s meant Stewart’s claim got another airing, this time from a grateful Stokes, who then watched from close quarters as Foakes defied the South African quicks. When he was sidelined once more in Pakistan, Foakes was better equipped to cope.
“My goal was always to play for England, so when I got dropped in 2019, I was a little bit lost. What is my goal now? Is it to get back in the England team, and to play however many Tests? To do well for Surrey? I know a lot of people use goals. But in my situation it’s better to take the pressure off myself, and enjoy however long I’m playing for.”
Now he wants to expand his game, and admits he’s an “old-school batter”. He adds, with a winsome grin: “I almost conflict with Bazball a bit.” England fans, you suspect, would prefer him to stay as he is: reassuring and elegant, on both sides of the stumps.
The Five Cricketers of the Year are picked by the editor, and the selection is based, primarily but not exclusively, on the players’ influence on the previous English season. No one can be chosen more than once.