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'I'm not, as you'd say, Bazball' admits Foakes as Bairstow's return looms large

England wicketkeeper says there is "no point stressing" over the possibility of losing his place

Ben Foakes flicks a shot down the leg side, New Zealand v England, 1st Test,  Mount Maunganui, 3rd day, February 18, 2023

Ben Foakes works one off his pads  •  AFP/Getty Images

Five years and 19 caps into his Test career, Ben Foakes knows not to take anything for granted. Just as it seems he is about to be on the cusp of good things, something comes along to knock him off course.
A 2018-19 winter which started with a century on debut in Sri Lanka ended in being dropped two Tests into the West Indies series that January. A recall at the start of 2021 against India was followed by missing the entirety of the following summer after slipping on a sock in the Surrey dressing room and tearing his hamstring.
Even when he became the side's full-time gloveman at the beginning of last summer, he contracted Covid-19 in the third Test against New Zealand and was replaced mid-match by Sam Billings, who played the next game against India at Edgbaston after Foakes was unable to recover in time. He then fell ill in Pakistan meaning not only did he miss the first of the three Tests, but he was left out of the second as Ben Stokes decided to keep a more attacking balance and stick with Ollie Pope behind the stumps. Just to highlight the almost comical levels of misfortune, Foakes had to lend his Surrey team-mate his gloves because Pope had not brought his own.
And now, after registering his sixth fifty-plus score in the second innings of the first Test against New Zealand to help set up a thumping 267-run win, another hindrance lurks on the horizon. One far more threatening to Foakes' Test ambitions than a stray sock.
As Jonny Bairstow continues his recovery from a broken ankle, the world-beating, borderline historic form of his replacement Harry Brook has created a selection headache. While Bairstow was the beating heart of the batting in Brendon McCullum's first few months in charge, scoring four centuries - making it six in 2022 - Brook has subbed in and, essentially, nail down a place of his own with three hundreds in four Tests.
Proposed solutions to get them both in the XI have included some creative licenses to have one of them operating as an opener. Unfortunately for Foakes, the most straightforward option would be to take the gloves off him and give them back to Bairstow for the first time since September 2021.
Of course, none of this is guaranteed. And who knows - there's every chance down the line this conversation does not happen. Foakes is aware it is a talking point. But the experiences over the last year alone have shown him enthusiasm towards his own game is far better than anxiety.
"I think my England journey has been a bit of a rollercoaster from day one," Foakes said in Mount Maunganui, prior to England leaving for Wellington where the second Test begins on Friday. "I've had a lot of times out of the team where I've thought about 'how do I get back in?' and things like that, and I guess thinking about those things doesn't help my game at all.
On the prospect of losing his place to Bairstow, he said: "Naturally, you're going to think about things. But at the stage I'm at, there's no point stressing over it. I'm having some good form in my career and I'm just trying to enjoy that rather than stressing about what might happen.
"In international cricket you will always go through certain phases. There have been so many times have in my career when I've thought 'oh that's going to happen, that's going to happen' and it never has. So there's no point in worrying about it."
Foakes wasn't always like this, even under the new regime essential built on eliminating doubt. His game, with all due respect, is something of a throwback - even if you don't really have to go back that far. He's got most of the shots, but not many of them in the air; he is more of a traditional accumulator than one of the new radicals alongside him.
That he is now comfortable being the outlier is important because, gradually, he has found his own way of providing for the team - thanks in part to no pressure from those in charge, and occasional positive reinforcement to just be himself.
"I'm not, as you'd say, Bazball," he ceded. "So I was kind of thinking, 'how am I meant to go about this?' But I think ever since I've come in, I think it hasn't been that, it hasn't been, 'you have to try and hit every ball for six'. It's been, 'play your way but if you think the option is on, don't umm and aah about it and be negative. Go for it.'
"Some of these guys have got more ability to hit it all over the place. I think if I try and do that it's just quite far away from my strengths, so I don't think it's the smartest idea. I think playing with freedom, but doing it in a way you feel comfortable.
"You do have a look up at the scoreboard at your strike rate: you want to keep it above 50. But I think it is a strength of mine to play slightly more normal cricket. And in bridging the gap between our explosive starts and then obviously batting with the tail, and batting with the tail I've got to bat a different way but in that period there when we're so far down, I can bat normally with a batter that's in, it's generally worked quite well.
"And I do think, quite a few of the games I've contributed have been in more in the role of batting normally and I guess more pressurised situations where you can't lose a wicket. So I think for me trying to perform in those times is quite crucial for the team and that's where I can probably show my impact the most."
Foakes is right, too. To look at his four highest scores since last May is to see the value of "batting normally", as he puts it, in this line-up. He made century against South Africa at Old Trafford, after coming in with England 147 for 5, four behind South Africa's innings total. He put on 173 with Stokes, then 95 with the tail to help the team to 415 for 9 ahead of a series-squaring innings victory.
Earlier that summer was a 56 against New Zealand at Trent Bridge in which he combined with Joe Root for 111 to turn a first innings deficit of 148 to just 14. In December in Karachi, he arrived with England five down and trailing Pakistan by 149 before combining with Brook (117) and the tail (62) to give the tourists a 50-run lead.
The fourth came on Saturday, and though the situation was not precarious when he arrived - 225 for 5, with a second-innings lead of 244 - Foakes was vital to the tactics of the day, to manage time into the evening when they put in New Zealand under lights for the second time in three days. Stuart Broad gutted the top order and the next morning, England went 1-0 up in the two-match series.
Foakes' composure from the off was all the more impressive considering he was not due in after Harry Brook was caught at slip. Stokes was originally the next man in - but was otherwise occupied. "He was on the toilet, yeah," Foakes confirmed. "Literally, as the ball came down, he sat down and I had one pad on, nothing else, so I was scrambling around. I was shouting at him, 'you go! I'm not ready.' There's never too much masterclass behind but yeah, he was preoccupied."
"It kind of feels like club cricket," he added. Not so much in terms of the captain being on the can, but how the mindset of the dressing room has changed, despite this still being such a taxing, relentless format. "When I first came in the pressures involved in Test cricket were so extreme and you were so worried about playing a false shot and things like that. And sometimes now you can get out in a weird way and it's a kind of a joke."
As the one doing things differently, the pressure on Foakes will always be a little bit greater, particularly with Bairstow rehabbing in the wings. However the cards fall, it is apparent at this juncture that Foakes being true to himself and being true to the team go hand in hand. If and when that changes, he can be comfortable in the knowledge he has done everything asked of him. And done it well.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo