England have just announced their squad for the Test series in Pakistan. There were a few surprises – Livingston hasn’t played a single 1st class game in 2022 – but something that’s gone slightly under the radar is the fact that they’ve only picked one keeper: a certain Ben Foakes. We’d better hope that he stays fit! This shows, of course, that Foakes is finally England’s undisputed first choice stumper. But can he take the next step and become the world’s best? Will Symonds tackles this very subject below…
Friday the 21st of August 2022. A typically gloomy afternoon in Manchester at the Old Trafford cricket ground. A packed crowd celebrates in unison as England’s Ben Foakes cuts a short, wide delivery from the ferocious Anrich Nortje to the boundary for four – bringing up his second test century and ensuring an unassailable England lead in the second test vs South Africa.
In an exceptionally dogged knock, the Surrey man faced 217 deliveries for his 113 not out. Striking at only 52.07. An untypically slow innings for England’s blistering new ‘Bazball’ era. Foakes wore down South Africa’s excellent pace attack while pouncing on any loose deliveries from their two spinners.
The century sparked instant fanfare from the cricketing community. Experts and supporters alike praised its solid and convincing nature. One common assertion from the cricketing public is that Foakes is ‘the best wicketkeeper in the world’, an outlandish but not unprompted opinion echoed by England’s captain a month prior to victory in Manchester.
“Ben is the best wicketkeeper in the world. That’s not just my own opinion, that’s a lot of people’s opinions”, declared skipper Stokes after England’s initial win of the home summer.
Heavy praise is nothing new to Foakes. Replacing the injured Jonny Bairstow in the first test of England’s 2018 tour of Sri Lanka, a dogged debut hundred cemented his reputation as an exceptional middle order bat. He was equally impressive behind the stumps that tour, keeping tidily on three volatile subcontinental pitches.
Glovework is undoubtedly where Foakes excels, taking five stumpings in his sixteen tests. This is particularly impressive in comparison to his predecessor, Jos Buttler. While mostly secure behind the stumps, Buttler managed to snag only one stumping in his 57 tests – four less than Foakes in 40 more appearances.
This comparison can also be made with the bat. From his thirty-one test innings Foakes averages 31.08, boasting two 50s and two 100s. Buttler has also scored two centuries, but from 70 more innings. Alongside his 18 half centuries, he averages 31.95, a marginal 0.87 runs more than Ben Foakes.
Undeniably, Jos Buttler has played some memorable and crucial test innings. His 75 off 101 balls against Pakistan 2020 comes to mind. Five wickets down, in pursuit of 277, the right-hander played a counter attacking, inventive knock, combining with Chris Woakes to reverse sweep England to unlikely victory. Valuable knocks of 70 (98) and 47(63) at the Oval against a fiery Pat Cummins led pace attack were imperative to ensuring a drawn 2019 Ashes series.
Valuable innings indeed. However, a lack of consistency with the bat combined with the clearly superior keeping abilities of Ben Foakes has seemingly signalled the end for Buttler as a test cricketer. The path now clear for Foakes to solidify himself as England’s premier wicketkeeper.
On the international stage, competition is a tad tougher. While his keeping still stands out, Foakes’s batting record appears modest in comparison to his contemporaries on the world stage. There’s New Zealand’s Tom Blundell, a gritty and dependable batter with three hundreds and an average north of 40 from his twenty tests. Pakistan’s Mohammed Rizwan boasts a similar average from his 24 matches; expert stroke play and an attacking mentality has earned the thirty-year-old two test centuries.
However, there’s only one player Foakes will have set in his sights on if he aims to become world number one: Rishabh Pant. A batter equally reckless as he is precise, the fearsome Indian number 7 burst onto the scene in 2018 with a swashbuckling 114 in the final test of his debut tour of England. A handful of masterful knocks contrasted some inconsistent form, until Pant solidified himself as a genuine world-class batter in India’s historic 2021 series victory over Australia. The destructive number seven played a talismanic role in the decisive final two matches. Smashing a fearless 97 off 118 as India hung on for a seemingly impossible draw, and bludgeoning his way to 89* as they chased down 328, defeating Australia at the supposedly impenetrable fortress Gabba. This historic victory would secure Pant’s place in cricketing mythos.
Pant’s imperious form would continue in the following home series against England. Targeting the left arm spin of Jack Leach to launch India to a series win with a dominant 101 in the final test. Particularly impressive in this innings was the aggressive manner in which Pant played. Not content with taking sensible singles, Rishabh threw caution to the wind, crashing England’s spinners to all parts and, perhaps most outrageously, reverse sweeping the esteemed James Anderson (who was bowling with the new ball).
Pant’s penchant for aggressive batting is an approach not shared with Ben Foakes. The Surrey man instead opts for a more traditionalist, defensive method when building an innings. While Foakes’s batting is commonly deemed ‘safer’, Pant’s attacking mentality has proved the more successful, averaging an impressive 43.3 having scored five hundreds from his 31 tests.
Should Foakes wish to overtake Pant as the world’s premiere wicketkeeper, there is a lot of work to do. As things stand, the Indian bat is superior not just in style and watchability but in runs scored too. To usurp Rishabh as world number one, a sizable increase of runs is required. Knocks like his Manchester ton must become a regularity for Foakes, rather than occasional flashes of quality they have so far been.
One area of superiority for the Englishman, however, is his glovework. While Pant’s keeping has certainly improved, he can’t claim to have the ‘wow factor’ Foakes does behind the sticks, nor the consistency. So, can Ben Foakes become the world’s best wicketkeeper? With the gloves, he’s already there. Making tough takes seem easy, his glovemanship is unmatched in world cricket.
His batting, however, must improve. Upcoming tours of Pakistan and New Zealand may indeed present the batting friendly pitches Foakes could thrive on. However, a string of big scores is surely required should Ben wish to push his case as the world’s undisputed best.