England overcame a poor start in Galle thanks to the debut heroics of Ben Foakes. Patrick Noone looks at how the wicket-keeper got England out of a hole on Day 1 of the first Test against Sri Lanka.
Today was a day that Ben Foakes will have dreamt about for many years and it turned into one that he will remember for even longer. With Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler ahead of Foakes in the wicket-keeping pecking order, the Surrey gloveman would have been forgiven for thinking his chance at this level might still be some way down the line. However, a fortuitous injury to Bairstow during a game of football gave Foakes his chance and he grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
Foakes has been on England’s radar for some time, ever since he impressed the ECB set-up with his glove-work when playing for Essex in a warm-up match at Chelmsford ahead of the 2013 Ashes. It remains to be seen how he will keep in Sri Lankan conditions – though Alec Stewart, his coach at Surrey, has previously declared him the best wicket-keeper in the world – but if there were any doubts about his batting, they have already been allayed, if not put to bed entirely with his authoritative, unbeaten 87 on debut.
It was hardly the ideal scenario for Foakes to make his Test bow; England had slumped to 103-5 after his near namesake Ben Stokes had become the third batsman in quick succession to be bowled playing an ill-advised shot. Foakes does not fit into the mould of many modern wicket-keepers, those that are tasked with being counter-attacking strokemakers down the order – since the start of 2017, three of the top six most attacking batsmen in world cricket regularly keep wicket. But that is not Foakes’ natural game, and it was not what the innings required when he arrived at the crease.
England’s position had been largely brought about by their own recklessness in the morning session. Foakes addressed the issue by calmly building an old-fashioned Test innings. He was by far England’s least attacking batsman of those that faced 20 balls or more, but that is not to say that he was getting bogged down or struggling in any way. On the contrary, he appeared in complete control and was still able to maintain a scoring rate of 2.83 runs per over, faster than Sam Curran (2.76) and only a fraction slower than Jos Buttler (3.16).
Foakes’ beehive illustrates his method more clearly. Sri Lanka bowled a high percentage of deliveries around the top of his off-stump, but Foakes did not try and attack a single one of them. He instead reserved his aggression for the balls that were over-pitched, too short or too wide on both sides of the wicket. It all pointed to a batsman skilful enough to pick up length early and disciplined enough to play the right shot to the right ball.
The wagon wheel below shows that Foakes scored the bulk of his runs on the leg-side, with just under half of his total runs coming in front of square on that half of the pitch. 33 of those runs came from balls that were simply worked to leg – that is, merely a rotating shot with no intention of scoring a boundary, but nonetheless one that kept the scoreboard moving to put the pressure back on Sri Lanka. That’s not to say that Foakes is incapable of eye-catching aggression when the ball is there to be hit; he played five pull shots that brought him 17 runs, including three boundaries.
With the emergence of Foakes, England now find themselves with what is often described as a ‘nice problem’. Bairstow could well be fit for the second Test in Kandy, and is surely still one of England’s premier batsmen, but how can Foakes possibly be dropped after a performance like this? Who misses out if Bairstow returns? Could one of Foakes or Buttler bat higher up if Bairstow does regain the gloves? These are all questions that the England selection panel will have to answer as England once again wrestle with the balance of their side after another top order failure.
A succession of England batsmen have come into the side in recent years and flattered to deceive with early promise before dwindling. Sam Robson, Adam Lyth and Keaton Jennings all scored centuries within their first two Tests, yet two have long since been discarded and the third is clinging to his place. Should Ben Foakes score 13 more runs tomorrow and complete a debut hundred, there is no guarantee it will translate into a long and successful career. However, there was more than enough skill, temperament and authority on display today to suggest that he belongs, for now.
Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz.