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News

Ben Foakes enters unfamiliar territory as England's first-choice wicketkeeper

Long-term understudy prepares for "different experience" as undisputed No. 1 in Caribbean

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
26-Feb-2022
Ben Foakes keeps his eye on the ball, Australia A vs England Lions, Ian Healy Oval, Brisbane, December 12, 2021

Ben Foakes made a half-century against Australia A in December  •  Getty Images

Ben Foakes has had to contend with high expectations ever since Alec Stewart, his director of cricket at Surrey, dubbed him "the best wicketkeeper in the world" five years ago and nothing has changed as he returns to the England Test set-up in the Caribbean.
With Jos Buttler dropped after a difficult Ashes series, Jonny Bairstow viewed primarily as a batter and Sam Billings discarded after making his debut in Hobart, Foakes has the opportunity to ensconce himself as England's No. 1 keeper over the next month. The Test team's much-vaunted "reset" means there are no long-term guarantees but Andrew Strauss, the ECB's interim managing director of men's cricket, said that he expected Foakes to "get a decent run of things" behind the stumps.
Strauss was fulsome in his praise of Foakes when the squad was announced two weeks ago. "[He's] widely acknowledged as the best keeper in the world - certainly one of the top keepers in the world," he said, "and a very, very good batsman in his own right." He may only be eight Tests into a stop-start international career but Foakes already has a reputation to uphold.
"It's definitely a different experience to be going in as No. 1," Foakes said on Friday, the morning after England arrived in Antigua to prepare for the first Test on March 8. "Other than one spell for a couple of games I've not really been No. 1, so I've not experienced that too much.
"I would say I've devoted my career to trying to play Test cricket. The T20 stuff is obviously kicking off, but Test cricket has always been my passion, so getting to this level and performing is 100% what I've invested my time in."
The spell Foakes referenced comprised only two games on England's most recent Test tour of the Caribbean in early 2019, when he took the gloves in a side that featured Bairstow and Buttler following an impressive debut series in Sri Lanka. But after two defeats and a series tally of 55 runs in four innings - including a couple of freak dismissals - he was dropped for the third Test and did not play again until last year, when he filled in for three Tests in India when Buttler was rested.
"I didn't expect it [being dropped] at the time, coming off the back of the Sri Lanka tour," Foakes said. "Being on cloud nine from that, I guess it's fair to say at the time I thought I might get a slightly longer run [but] there was always that thing of the balance of the side niggling away.
"When you're new into a team and you're losing, I guess you are vulnerable. I guess it's just about trying to make sure you're performing whenever you get the opportunity. It is international sport. It's obviously quite a tough environment and things like that do happen, so I completely understand how it could happen but I'm hoping to get a run this time."
He was then due to take the gloves against New Zealand at the start of the 2021 summer when Bairstow and Buttler had only recently returned from the IPL, but a freak injury ruled him out the series - and most of the summer. He has played only two first-class games since, one of them on England Lions' tour to Australia when he made 12 and 73.
"We'd just finished the game," Foakes recalled. "We'd been in the field and I stepped on my heel in my socks and I slipped down into the splits. I thought I had cramp, sat down for a bit, tried to move it but couldn't. I tried to walk on it and it kept collapsing, so I knew it was pretty gone.
"I guess everything hit at once. It was just a bunch of emotions: disappointment at missing out; you feel a bit guilty that you've let people down, let team-mates down. You're desperate to be out there and then you worry if you're going to come back OK. But the rehab team at Surrey were amazing and I feel my body is pretty strong now."
While Foakes' skill with the gloves sets him apart from England's other keeping options, he insisted: "I don't just see myself as a keeper." With that in mind, his tempo with the bat will be a point of interest: he scored fluently in his maiden series in Sri Lanka but struggled to pace his innings batting down the order on tough pitches in India last year, finishing the series with a strike rate of just 30.
"It's different," he said. "Obviously with Surrey I bat at No. 5 so I get to just go out and bat. For England, if you're batting at No. 7, I think certain situations may dictate you have to play a different way. I think the best way to go about it for me is just play my natural game, and if there are situations where I need to go outside that, then so be it. But not [by] trying to be someone that I'm not."

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98