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Feature

Ben Foakes faces lonely spell on sidelines as Bazball's firestarter returns to the fold

Bairstow's return after injury was a given, as McCullum and Stokes make the expedient call

Ben Foakes walks off after being dismissed with seven runs needed, New Zealand vs England, 2nd Test, Wellington, 5th day, February 28, 2023

Ben Foakes cut a lonely figure as he left the field at Wellington, during England's one-run loss in his most recent Test  •  Getty Images

It was Brendon McCullum who made the call to tell Ben Foakes he had lost his place in the England men's Test side to Jonny Bairstow.
The selection meeting for the Ireland Test at Lord's - a de facto Ashes squad - was dominated by discussions on how to fit both in an XI. Moving someone to open instead of Zak Crawley was not regarded as an option. As such, the selectors had only one decision to make.
Foakes will have known what was coming as soon McCullum's name popped up on his phone, even though McCullum called all those selected. Bairstow's impending return from a broken leg had loomed in the background during the winter, before coming to the fore for Foakes specifically at the start of the summer when the Yorkshireman requested the gloves upon his competitive return. Now it has been confirmed that Bairstow will keep and bat at No.7.
Foakes was understandably upset, not least because it could mean missing out entirely on the Ashes, a series he was desperately looking forward to. "It's a really exciting summer for whoever is involved," Foakes had said at the start of April during Surrey's pre-season media day. "And hopefully it's me!" As motivated as ever, he began the County Championship with 76 and 103 not out against Lancashire.
Five weeks on, he has requested a couple of days to himself to deal with the news. Managing director Rob Key will look to call Foakes himself in the coming days to check in and insist this is by no means the end for the Surrey keeper. He will almost certainly be on the Test tour of India at the start of 2024.
"He's shown he's good enough to play at that level," Key said on Tuesday. "Ben Foakes has shown exactly that in abundance, really."
The writing was on the wall back as far back as December. After missing the first Test against Pakistan in Rawalpindi with illness, Foakes had regained full fitness ahead of the second Test in Multan. Two days prior to the start, he was informed by McCullum and Ben Stokes that England would go with an unchanged team. It meant Surrey team-mate Ollie Pope, having filled in as wicketkeeper for that first match of the series, would do so again.
With the onus on scoring quickly and re-enforcing their bowling options - Mark Wood came in for the injured Liam Livingstone - Foakes was surplus to requirements. The blow was compounded when he literally had to hand over his gloves to Pope, who had not brought any on tour. He subsequently joked Pope might as well keep them.
At the time, Stokes pumped up Foakes' tyres: "He is still the No. 1 gloveman in England, and I'll still keep saying it - that he's the best keeper in the world." Such praise has probably lost meaning for Foakes given how often he has heard it, mostly when being cast aside during a stop-start international career.
He went on to keep in the third and final match of that Pakistan series, along with the two Tests in New Zealand that rounded off the winter. Even after that last match in Wellington, which Foakes almost sealed for England with a battling 35 in their one-run loss, McCullum lauded the impactful nature of his performances. "He has really developed as a cricketer for us over the last nine months."
Perhaps tellingly, however, Foakes was the one England player who struggled to look on the bright side after that dramatic finish in Wellington. But now, perhaps with more clarity than ever before, he is being forced to contemplate his expendability. Even as the standout in his field, even as a player who has averaged 38.90 in nine of the 12 Tests under the new regime, as a valued facilitator to an exciting batting line-up typified by a match-turning century against South Africa last summer, there is someone else.
And yet at the same time, it is important to offer context on this most high-profile snub. Is it unfortunate? Without a doubt. Unfair? Well, probably not.
Foakes is not being simply being replaced by Bairstow, but by an iteration of Bairstow that England had only dreamed of before his exploits last summer. Never mind the six centuries in 2022 before his golfing accident in August, the 681 runs at a strike rate of 96.59 across six home Tests was on a different plane altogether.
Stokes and McCullum unlocked the beast that lies within Bairstow, doing so by simplifying matters around him. Urging him to play his own aggressive way, making him feel a little more appreciated and a lot more loved. Crucially, by not taking him for granted. The irony of laying out all that when assessing Foakes' situation is clear to see. But without Bairstow, there would be no Bazball.
"The way that he [Bairstow] played epitomised everything we were about," Key said. "And you might not have had this success without Jonny.
"What I do know last summer under Brendon and Ben, we saw a Jonny Bairstow we hadn't seen before as a batsman. So I'm almost a bit like all bets are off with what's happened in the past, and all people's records are like in the past when they've done a certain role for us. Under Brendon and Ben, they've got the best out of someone like Jonny Bairstow and I expect them to do the same now."
The records Key alludes to pertain to Bairstow's role as keeper-batter, which he last performed outright in 2019. All five of Bairstow's hundreds scored as the designated wicketkeeper have come in the first innings of matches. The conclusion is he is most effective as a batter when he has not already kept. Given the scale of the injury to Bairstow's left leg - his fibula was broken in three places - questions remain of his durability to marry work behind and in front of the stumps across six Tests in 61 days.
The decision to opt for Bairstow over Foakes has elicited a strong reaction on social media. And that is probably down to the fact that, whatever joy there is in seeing the former return to the fold, the latter being discarded through no fault of his own is a perceived injustice.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect from Foakes' perspective is the graft he's put in over the last 12 months. There were initial difficulties with the No.7 role when most of his batting for Surrey and previously Essex had been in the top six, but he ended up excelling without veering too far from his usual method. "I'm not, as you'd say, Bazball," he admitted earlier this summer, but that didn't prevent him being named as one of Wisden's Five Cricketers of the Bazball Year.
He was also a touch put out by the lack of a dedicated keeping coach from the start of last summer, but developed a more self-sufficient routine. Not only did it work for him, but he ended up being a valuable assistant to others, not just for Pope in Pakistan but Sam Billings too, when the Kent keeper deputised for the India Test after Foakes contracted Covid-19 during the previous match of the summer against New Zealand.
The hope is all this has made Foakes robust enough to move forward from this axing. The sadness is that, having found a way to fit in and done everything asked of him, he finds himself on the outside once more.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo