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Opinion

Why Ben Foakes should be England’s No.1 Test wicketkeeper

Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner 4 minute read

England’s best Test team has Jonny Bairstow in the top five and Ben Foakes keeping wicket, says Ben Gardner.

The argument that Ben Foakes should be England’s No.1 Test keeper has been made before, and in a sense, not much has changed. He still deserves selection as a batsman in his own right, Jonny Bairstow still needs to be batting up the order, and Foakes is still the best keeper going.

But in the last few months, all those points have come into sharper focus. Since the start of 2015, of those who might but aren’t currently playing for England, Ben Foakes’ first-class average of 48.38 is the second best, behind only Sam Northeast, who’s currently injured, and whose non-selection is perhaps the only one which rivals Foakes’ for mystery. And this season, the Surrey keeper seems to have gone to another level.

Before the final round of Championship games he had more county runs than any other Englishman except his Surrey captain Rory Burns, with Foakes boasting an average of 61.60. What’s more, he’s making runs every time he comes out to bat. While his conversion rate is low – he has just eight hundreds set against 23 fifties across his career – 11 of those fifties are unbeaten, and you’d probably rather your No.7 made frequent, regular contributions which ensure the tail wags rather than big scores every so often. Before round four, Foakes’ lowest dismissed score in five innings this season was 34.

England aren’t flush with the kind of talent that means they can ignore a player averaging almost 50 in the past three-and-a-bit years, and doing so by making runs week in, week out, and while Foakes would bat down the order for England, by freeing up England’s current wicketkeeper, Jonny Bairstow, he might indirectly solve their top order woes.

Bairstow has been a key member of England’s side for nearly three years, and is now in perhaps the richest vein of form of his career. A superb hundred at Perth against Australia, batting somewhere near where he should be at No.5, was followed by two ODI hundreds opening the batting in consecutive innings to seal a thriller of a series against New Zealand, before a fifth Test hundred, this time from No.7, came in England’s nail-biting draw against the Kiwis.

But far from showing how the Yorkshireman can make big runs regularly from down the order, that last knock merely highlighted how one of England’s most talented batsmen is often wasted. Bairstow was only able to reach the landmark thanks to Mark Wood smashing an exhilarating but unexpected fifty from No.9; it shouldn’t take a once-in-a-lifetime tail-end innings for Bairstow to get the support he needs to ton up.

More evidence that he belongs up top came in his first game of the summer against Essex. Opening the batting in the pursuit of quick runs on a green-top, Bairstow smashed fifty at better than a run a ball to set up an outrageous victory and show that his attacking style can work against the moving ball. Maybe opening in Tests for England is a stretch, but he should be no lower than No.5, where he can make match-defining hundreds in the company of Joe Root, Dawid Malan and the rest, and average close to 50 as his talent deserves, rather than less than 40 as he currently does. And it’s tough to balance batting that high and keeping wicket.

Finally, thanks to the wonders of live-streaming, Foakes’ sublime keeping skills are there for anyone with a Twitter account to see. Before, raving about his work behind the sticks had been the preserve of county reporters and Surrey die-hards. True, Alec Stewart and Kumar Sangakkara, two glove-work world experts, had waxed lyrical about his class, but those endorsements came with a three-feathered caveat.

And there was the troubling question, rarely mentioned but always in the background, of just how much difference the increase in quality would make. It’s not like Bairstow, a much-improved keeper, was dropping many catches. Would Foakes’ actually be worth anything in the runs department, or would it just make the aesthetes coo in appreciation?

Now we know. Three unbelievable off-side takes against Hampshire showed how, with Foakes’ improbable reach, you almost don’t need a first slip. That gives one ‘luxury’ fielder, who can be used to save runs or hunt for wickets. An even better leg-side grab off Amar Virdi, all of his anticipation and footwork helping him turn an awful delivery into a wicket-taking one, showed how Foakes can create dismissals by himself.

He’s got a better record than most other middle-order batsmen eligible for selection, he’ll allow Jonny Bairstow to flourish, and he’ll create wickets by himself, or allow other fielders to do so. That’s all been true for a while, but now it’s more true than ever. His time has surely come.

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