When done right, some things in life – like a proper wet shave with a cut-throat razor, or cooking your roast potatoes in goose fat – can be so luxuriously perfect that, in that precise instance in which you sit back and go “aaah!”, you vow to yourself you will never, ever again settle for anything less than the very, very best a man can get.
But then, life gets in the way, and the impracticality of your peccadillo catches up with you at inopportune moments, and you end up just settling for a Bic and some cooking oil. And you know what? They do a perfectly adequate job. A blemish here and there on your mildly fuzzy cheeks, perhaps, and maybe a fractionally less satisfying crunch to your spud. But who’s really paying attention when, as everyone knows, it’s the quality of the gravy that truly defines your beef?
Such were the circumstances that defined Ben Foakes‘ efforts on the third morning at Chennai, as he produced one of the most lasciviously futile masterclasses imaginable.
Much like his matinee-idol teeth, Foakes’ efforts all Test long have been close to spotless. In the first innings, his unshowy excellence contributed to a new world record – the highest total ever conceded without a single extra – while in the second, the same pillowy soft hands that have served his bowlers so well behind the sticks gave England a glimmer of resistance in front of them too, as he dug in to top-score with 42 unflustered, unbeaten runs, even as his team-mates were fleeing the lava-pit.
— ESPNcricinfo (@ESPNcricinfo) February 14, 2021
But it was on the third morning, as if piqued by a fractional dip in his standards the previous evening, that Foakes brought out his most silken showmanship. Wicketkeepers, like umpires, rarely steal the limelight unless they are making match-changing errors – especially not when Virat Kohli is busy compiling a statement half-century in their presence. But Foakes’ exploits in the space of 30 faultless minutes from the start of play were too wondrous to pass without extensive and gushing comment.
The prologue was Foakes’ assist in Ollie Pope’s ninja-reflexed run-out of Cheteshwar Pujara – a moment that may have owed plenty to an unlucky stubbing of Pujara’s bat in front of the popping crease, but which also served to underline the significance of sharp reflexes in the close combat of Asian Test cricket.
After all, Dom Bess had singled out Pope for his efforts at short leg in the first Test, saying he was ready to “offer him a contract” to be his permanent lid-man. And given that Keaton Jennings attracted similar plaudits in Foakes’ debut series in Sri Lanka two years ago, it’s curious how wicketkeeping excellence still can’t quite earn the same cachet as a must-have weapon for these conditions. Foakes, after all, came into this contest with most of England ruing the untimely departure of Jos Buttler – a less accomplished gloveman who, for all his faultless work in the past three Tests, was barely six months ago facing the Test axe on account of his batting.
What followed, however, was a one-man protest on behalf of the English Wicketkeeper’s Union – a cri de coeur on behalf of men such as James Foster and Chris Read, both of whom have been helping Foakes to hone his technique during this Asian tour, and both of whom discovered in their own playing days how hard it is to gain traction on an England berth when molten glovework is the best thing that you can offer to the team collective.
So Foakes set about upping the ante with a pair of utterly sublime stumpings to account for Rohit Sharma and Rishabh Pant. Both were notable not so much for the speed of his hands but their proactive movement, as he absorbed the fizzing bounce with scarcely a hint of tension in his stance, and was already flowing towards the bails as the ball began to nestle into his webbing.
In both instances, there was no question that Foakes had “made” the dismissals, rather than simply reacting to the chances that came his way. Rohit might well have wriggled back into his crease had he taken longer than a split-second to seize his chance, but it was the poise he retained as Pant galloped, swung and swivelled that made even the leathery old pros in the commentary box sigh. Foakes had every right to be caught unawares as the ball exploded through a contortion of limbs, high to his right. Instead, his reaction was magnetic in its surety.
And just as quickly as his reflexes, the plaudits began to rain down, not least from a past-master of Indian keeping, Kiran More, who praised Foakes on Twitter as “one of the best overseas keepers in Indian conditions”. “When Foakes opens up while keeping his body opens up, that helps him to collect the ball when it is bouncing and jumping,” he wrote. “He has a great head and hand position, has great balance about him.”
In the Channel 4 studio at lunch, Sir Andrew Strauss grudgingly set about eating some humble pie. Strauss was a curiously puritanical captain in his day, given his rakish attributes, and admitted his belief that specialist wicketkeepers belonged to a “bygone age” – an understandable sentiment, on the one hand, seeing as the rise of his own No.1 Test team had had the sergeant-majorly Matt Prior as the team’s pivot and pulse at No. 7. And just like Buttler and Jonny Bairstow in recent times, Prior’s game was blameless at the height of his career – even if, in conditions such as these on his maiden tour to Sri Lanka in 2007-08, his cymbal-gloved display at Kandy had cost England a rare victory chance, and soon led to his own banishment from the team for the next 12 months.
That’s one of the big problems for wicketkeepers – the bigger the reputation, the harder the ‘clang’ as that opportunity goes to ground. The other is the one that became all too apparent as India’s second innings began to stretch off into the distance. When the chances dry up, even the half-ones, any point of difference that you might have brought into the contest drifts back into abeyance.
For a time in India’s second-innings reboot, Foakes’ standards were undimmed. There he was, standing up to and swallowing Stuart Broad’s lesser-spotted legcutters, which were biting off the pitch with such venom that Ben Stokes, standing five metres further back at slip, was still too late to react for the one opportunity that came his way.
There was Foakes, plucking cobra spit at neck height, as Jack Leach found bite and bounce from an off-stump line. He even induced a review for caught-behind off Dan Lawrence’s ripping first delivery, with Joe Root seduced by the nonchalance of his one-handed, unsighted snaffle down the leg side. And to think that Alec Stewart standing up to Ronnie Irani for a handful of ODIs was once the height of English wicketkeeping funk. Surely this was a masterclass of epoch-shifting proportions?
And yet, England have got giddy about Foakes’ attributes before. It only took one ill-balanced Test in the Caribbean two years ago for his player-of-the-series exploits in Sri Lanka to be banished to cricket-hipster purgatory – and who knows when, if ever, he’ll get a chance to add to his one-and-only ODI cap, let alone get himself an average after saving England’s bacon in Malahide with an unbeaten matchwinning fifty.
For his plight is almost as old as the game itself. Everyone tends to blame Adam Gilchrist for shattering the mould for specialist keepers at the turn of the 2000s, but Jack Russell and Bob Taylor were suffering for their art long before him, as were Keith Andrew and George Duckworth back in the days when Godfrey Evans and Les Ames were the more recognised sources of runs.
And sure enough, just as things were getting eulogistic, Foakes failed to wrap his gloves around an 82mph/132kph nick as Broad went unrewarded once again, and suddenly the bubble was burst. “Why is he standing up to the stumps?” asked Sunil Gavaskar on the host broadcast, with precisely the lack of nuance that purists can attract when they let their standards slide. Not long after that, he missed another stumping too – or was it a dropped catch? Either way, an infinitesimally small under-edge deceived Foakes as he rose to end R Ashwin’s stay, and there’s surely no more naked sight in the game.
And so, in spite of the heights of excellence that one of the purest talents in the game was briefly able to attain, final judgement on Foakes’ return to the England Test team is destined to come down to his batting on the very same snake-pit that he went above and beyond to tame. Plus ça change for his breed, you might say. But at least he’s got an average of 79.75 in Asia to give his credentials some heft.
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