We’re not particularly used to seeing specialist wicket keepers in international cricket these days. In the careful calculations, or the gut feelings, that go into selecting a winning side, runs with the bat trump ability with the gloves. We can thank Adam Gilchrist for that, with his pulsating batting at no.7 adding yet another dimension to Australia’s already dominant batting for the first half of this century – it has become the blueprint for selecting the modern keeper.
Indeed, the last time England experimented with a genuine wicket keeper in international cricket was James Foster’s inclusion in the ranks for the 2009 World T20. Batting in the tail, it was reckoned that Foster’s superior keeping would give England an edge in the tournament. Whilst England’s failure to win the tournament wasn’t Foster’s fault, by the time of the 2010 World T20, Andy Flower had opted for wholesale changes in personnel and the bombastic Craig Kieswetter was England’s opener and keeper.
You can’t say England got that call wrong, either. Kieswetter played a pivotal role in England winning the tournament with his heavy hitting propelling England towards glory.
England did go on to have a brief dalliance with Steven Davies in the lead up to the 2011 World Cup, but it was short lived and they ultimately opted for Matt Prior at the tournament. Batting ability won out.
Now, these comments may appear harsh on the likes of Matt Prior and Geraint Jones, even Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler. But all of them were batsmen first and foremost who had to learn the wicket keeping trade in the glare of international cricket. International cricket should be a finishing school though, not a kindergarten.
And so, we arrive at England’s latest wicket keeper, Ben Foakes. I’ve been a fan of Foakes ever since he displaced Steven Davies as Surrey’s wicket keeper. I’ve been calling for his inclusion in England’s Test team for a while, too. He’s a genuinely good gloveman who is also possessed of no mean amount of batting talent.
This has been on display for Surrey for a short while, yet England’s selectors have been reluctant to throw him in, despite on-field issues in the wicket keeping position. In England’s initial squad announcement for their recent tour of Sri Lanka, there was no room for Foakes.
Bairstow’s ankle injury combined with Buttler’s indifferent performances during the ODI series with Sri Lanka (I’m being polite, he was pretty wretched with the gloves) meant that England needed to seek an alternative. It was, finally, Foakes’s time.
And what a difference picking your best keeper makes! He was assured against the spinners, affecting a brilliant stumping in his first innings having taken a catch to his second ball. There was no sloppiness behind the stumps, just brilliantly efficient keeping, the likes of which England haven’t really dabbled in this century. Across six innings against Sri Lanka, Foakes conceded only 19 byes. His opposite number, Niroshan Dickwella, himself a handy operator behind the stumps even if his idea of what constitutes lbw needs addressing, conceded 23 byes.
Against India in the summer, England used Bairstow as their no.1 and Buttler as his deputy. Now, there’s nothing wrong with Bairstow’s keeping and he deserves a lot of credit for taking on the role and improving himself to the extent to which he has. Buttler isn’t even Lancashire’s no.1 keeper these days, so his days as a Test keeper must, surely, be behind him. He’s batted better than I expected since his surprise Test recall anyway, so it’s not a role that he needs to fulfill anymore to justify his selection.
And that is the route which Bairstow must now take, forcing his selection via his batting prowess which was so evident in a comeback century batting at three in the third Test in Colombo. He isn’t England’s best wicket keeper. He’s a decent keeper, but Foakes is a really good keeper. And Foakes can bat. He can bat really well.
A century at no.7 in his debut innings propelled England to a first innings total that laid the foundations of victory. His 277 series runs were not surpassed. He immediately looked at home as a batsman in Test cricket, before he’d even put his keeping gloves on.
It took them a while, but England have finally got their best wicket keeper in the side. With the proliferation of all-rounders in the current England setup, England can afford to select their wicket keeper on his wicket keeping alone. The fact that the current guy can bat is the bonus this time, not the fact that he can he do a bit of keeping.
By Miles Reucroft