It’s sometimes hard to remember that there’s some actual cricket to be played. England and the ECB appear in a state of flux, unsure whether to abandon everything or plug on gamely. We need new fans! We need existing fans! We need more money!
Whilst the maelstrom over the ECB’s proposed 100-ball tournament has overshadowed the start of the County Championship, there are some stories of interest from the actual game itself. The burning question is: after such a torrid winter, who should England pick this summer to revive their Test fortunes?
The cupboard, alarmingly, is somewhat bare, particularly in regards to the batting. Which is why England can ill afford to overlook Ben Foakes.
The Surrey wicket keeper has a solid First Class record, with an average of 42.29 after 81 games and has started this season in fine form. So far in 2018 he has 301 runs at an average of 60.20. His form in 2017, which earned him a call up to the Test squad for the Ashes, saw him score 680 runs at 42.50.
The only fly in the ointment is Foakes’s lack of centuries. He only scored one last year and has so far failed to convert three 50s into triple figures this year.
That’s just the batting, though. Foakes is an excellent wicket keeper and was lauded by his Surrey mentor, Alex Stewart, as the best keeper in the world last year. The role of the specialist keeper is something which has almost disappeared from the game over the past 25 years. To have an exceptional keeper, and one who can bat, is simply too good an opportunity to pass up for England right now.
But what of Jonny Bairstow, you may well be asking? Bairstow has worked incredibly hard on his keeping and has come on leaps and bounds from the patchy gloveman we saw in 2014. He was rushed into the role and had the unenviable task of learning his trade in the glare of Test cricket. To his immense credit, it is a task to which he rose with aplomb.
But Bairstow’s true value to England no longer lies in his wicket keeping. England need him to score runs. He has been batting way too low, usually coming in at seven, to affect games up front. He has been the icing on the cake when he should be its foundation. In Adelaide, owing to the inclusion of a nightwatchman, Bairstow came out to bat at eight during the second innings of England’s doomed second Test. It was a complete waste of resources and something that needs urgently addressing.
It may appear as if England lack the resources, which is true in some cases, especially at the top of the order, but Bairstow is evidence that England can better utilise what they already have. Critics have pointed to his lack of Test centuries (five) and relatively low average (39.20), but if he’s always shepherding the tail, his personal contributions will suffer. Such is the nature of the individual within a team context.
So Foakes could solve two problems for England. He can free Bairstow to move up the order without compromising the lower order batting depth, and he’s a better wicket keeper. Again, that is not to criticise Bairstow, but Foakes is a more natural gloveman. I don’t have the tools to run an analysis of the number of byes per game conceded by each, but having had the fortune to see both up close, I’d be surprised if Foakes doesn’t surpass Bairstow on the majority of wicket keeping metrics.
With new chairman of the selectors, Ed Smith expected to embrace a more analytical and statistical approach to selecting England players, it would be a surprise if he were to overlook an obvious looking gain for the side such as this.
James Vince has done nothing to suggest he belongs at Test level and Joe Root briefly went out to bat at three in the first Test against New Zealand. He could make that move permanent with Bairstow slotting in at four. Dawid Malan has probably done enough to justify his retention at five, although exciting young talents such as Joe Clarke and Ollie Pope are starting to state their own cases for inclusion, and Liam Livingstone looks a solid long term middle order bet for England’s Test side, even if he was thrown to the lions somewhat in making his international bow in T20 cricket last summer with disastrous results – he looks every inch a red ball batsman, not a white ball one.
If Smith is to eschew wholesale changes, then promoting Foakes from squad member to starting XI looks a logical step as England attempt to rebuild morale in home series against Pakistan and India.
By Miles Reucroft