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Foakes unfazed amid talk of battle for England gloves with Bairstow

Surrey keeper "happy with the way things have gone" under Stokes-McCullum regime

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

Ben Foakes has been a consistent performer under Ben Stokes  •  AFP/Getty Images

Of the thoughts pre-occupying Ben Foakes ahead of the 2023 season, his status as England's No. 1 wicketkeeper is not one of them.
The news Jonny Bairstow has requested the keeping gloves upon his return to action for Yorkshire in a bid to boost him claims on a Test place after breaking his leg last September was a shot across the bows for Foakes. The Surrey wicketkeeper has been the go-to gloveman under Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum, assuming the role for nine of the 12 matches in the new era. Now, with a one-off Test against Ireland and the summer headliner of an Ashes on the horizon, his place is under threat.
Foakes drew special praise from head coach McCullum at the end of the New Zealand tour, stating the 30-year-old's performances to date were "excellent, not just as a wicketkeeper, which is world-class". The development of his batting was singled out, with some vital innings across the last nine months.
But after Bairstow's 2022, which featured six centuries and 1061 runs at an average of 66.31 before his year came to an abrupt halt, along with the blockbuster returns of his middle-order replacement, Harry Brook, Foakes is aware he has an all-too-familiar fight on his hands to retain his spot. McCullum has said he would not attempt to "crowbar" Bairstow in, but that would not be the case if the Yorkshireman kept - something he has done in 49 of his 89 Test caps so far.
And given Foakes was left out of the second Test against Pakistan back in December, after Ollie Pope deputised as keeper when Foakes was ruled out of the first through illness, it is evidently a decision England are willing to make.
It was only really on the tour of the West Indies last year, off the back of England's 4-0 defeat in the 2021-22 Ashes, that Foakes was given a clear run as Test keeper. His debut in Sri Lanka in 2018 came about after Bairstow damaged ankle ligaments playing football in the warm-ups during the ODI series that preceded the three-match Test series. Foakes marked the occasion with a hundred in his first innings, but soon fell back down the pecking order, behind Bairstow and Jos Buttler. To many, Foakes' status as England's first-choice gloveman has been long overdue.
"I'm happy with the way things have gone for me," Foakes said at Surrey's media day on Monday. "So it is a bit unique to be asked about that [his place]. But I can't remember a time when I haven't been asked that stuff to be honest with you, since I started playing.
"It is just something I obviously put up with but it is only really times like this where you hear it. Within the camp there is no chat about any selections, whoever it might be at any stage, so it is more just stuff like this."
Blocking out the noise is helped by an average of 38.90 under Stokes. There have been four standout scores above 50, including a second Test century (and first at home) scored during a vital stand with his captain in the series-squaring victory in the second Test against South Africa at Old Trafford. Time away from the field in the four series he has played during that time has also helped him reinforce his ability to cut out negative distractions.
"Obviously playing county cricket you don't get any [media scrutiny] and then all of a sudden it ramps up quite significantly, and that can be a difficult thing. But I've found by doing things like staying off social media, not checking Cricinfo during series and things like that just allows me to play the game of cricket again and just be more focused on whatever my job is that day.
"I think it's just a distraction you don't need, it can just muddle your thinking, if you think 'this might happen, so I've got to do this or I've got to do extra'. It takes you away from what you do well and just makes your job more difficult. I think experience over the years for me has showed me that. So nowadays, I just ignore it all."
Nevertheless, Foakes admitted his last outing with England, his 20th cap, still sticks in a craw. He came within eight runs of seeing his side to victory in the second Test against New Zealand at Wellington back in February. Having arrived at the crease with England 201 for 6 chasing a target of 258 on day five, he watched Joe Root fall for 95 one run later before assuming the lead role to marshal the tail through what remained.
On 35, a pull off Tim Southee in search of his fifth boundary ended up nestling into the hands of Neil Wagner at fine leg, which made it 251 for 9. Wagner went on to dismiss No. 11 James Anderson to give the Blackcaps a famous one-run victory to square the series.
While both sides revelled in the part they played got such a thrilling climax, Foakes was visibly distraught at the conclusion. Though he has shaken off that disappointment, it reiterated a sense he needs to expand his repertoire with the bat.
"That night, I was gutted," Foakes said. "I think that's the area of the game I need to work on. I play a different role at Surrey so that's the area I've been working on the most. I was really happy with the way I stuck to my processes and did what I wanted to do, but obviously gutted to fall just short and get out with seven to go and not quite get over the line.
"I think one thing I've taken from playing for England is for me, it's more about how many times can I impact the game. Batting at seven and the style we play you might not often get too long to bat in certain situations. So it's about how can I impact, how many games can I contribute to in a positive way."
The crux of Foakes' conflict is his position in the England line-up. Having developed as a top-six batter on the domestic circuit for Essex and Surrey, he is still learning on the job at No. 7 for the national team. The need to switch between batting normally with the top order or aggressively with the lower order is part of the job description. The former comes naturally, but the latter still needs work in Foakes' opinion.
"The challenge I find and the difference is when I go in and someone gets out early and you're batting with the tail trying to ramp it up and play a slightly different style from say your 10th ball. I think that is the challenge and something you have to train for. Whereas my training over the last few years trying to get into the England team is trying to bat in nets, develop a technique that's solid and all the old-school stuff. Whereas I think there are different elements to batting at seven you require so they're the things I've tried to work on."
It is worth stating at no point have England voiced any public or private displeasure at how Foakes has operated so far. Those within the camp have been impressed with how he has approached an unfamiliar role, the ownership taken over his game and the manner in which he has carried himself on the field, emerging as a key sounding board for Stokes, whether suggesting shifts in the field or taking it upon himself to stand up to the stumps against the seamers.
All told, he has done everything expected of him - and done it well. Regardless of the situation with Bairstow, such self-prescribed improvement will only be of benefit to England and, more importantly, Foakes himself.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo