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Ben Foakes - the specialist discussion in the age of batsman-wicketkeeper

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Ben Foakes has been brilliant in the Test thus far


Ben Foakes - the specialist discussion in the age of batsman-wicketkeeper

When the ball whizzed past Rishabh Pant, turning sharply past his inside edge, the ball rifled past the leg-stump only to find an equally alert Ben Foakes waiting by the millisecond to affect the stumping. Now imagine this on a third-day track where the ball has an uneven bounce?

That’s the idea of having a wicketkeeper-batsman, a specialist wicketkeeper in the age and discussion of other wicketkeepers. In the age and day where wicketkeepers like Rishabh Pant and Jos Buttler - have thrived and succeeded in the role but, they have always had a comparison with the best keepers in the country. Thus walks Wriddhiman Saha and Ben Foakes into the debate, with the question that always surrounds them being, are they capable enough with the bat. 

But on the first day, it was evident what a specialist keeper has to offer when Foakes was flying his gloves consistently from one end of the stump to another, from the leg-pole to the first slip. He was consistently blinded by the presence of the batsmen but it didn’t faze him out, he remained at his own nonchalant self behind the sticks, swaying to the tunes of Chepauk. 

The razzle-dazzle around Foakes would have suggested that the wicketkeeper was perhaps making his debut but he wasn’t, hell it wasn’t even his first stint as a wicketkeeper in the sub-continent, not even India, for that matter of fact. Foakes, having made his debut against Sri Lanka, has shown the entire world how it is to have a specialist wicketkeeper behind the poles. The difference is quite important to know, it is almost the difference between a specialist bowler and an all-rounder, who bowls a lot. It’s that!

Foakes on day three © BCCI

"Not knowing where I stood with England played a part in adding to that mental burnout. It was tough," Foakes told the Daily Mail, after he was snubbed from the Test squad. The English selectors instead looked at honing Jos Buttler and his skills, deeming it enough to warrant him the No.1 status in the country. 

Just before the start of the India tour, Foakes had got the knowledge that he was going to replace Jos Buttler, as early as the second Test in India. And the second Test was in Chennai, one of the toughest places for a wicketkeeper. While the seaming and swinging conditions offer trouble, the spinning deliveries require as much or more attention at an even faster pace. The difference between a stumping and a missed opportunity to snap a 100-run partnership could be milliseconds, that’s where the pressure and the importance of a specialist wicketkeeper comes into the picture. 

Coming into the Test, Foakes had emphasised that he had played just two red-ball games, it didn’t matter though. On the first day, with the ball sharply turning away from Rohit Sharma, Foakes had the minute of opportunities - a sharp chance of getting a well-set batsman back to the hut. He did alright, he did more than alright, disturbed the timber and even was confident that he had sent Rohit back, only for the third-umpire to deny him of the glory. But despite that, he went on, at his best, even plucking deliveries outside the leg-stump on a sharp turning wicket.

On the second day, early in the morning, his stumping to dismiss Axar Patel - another sharp piece of work - saw him hit the headline yet again. His stumping was compared to MS Dhoni, one of Chennai’s loved figures and in Chennai, where the heart of the lion is, made it even more special. But could he and would he bat, as good as a specialist batsman?

“Every game and opportunity I get, I want to take it and kind of prove what I can do rather than looking too far ahead at what I can try and cement down,” he said before the clash in Chennai. He wasn’t too bothered about dislodging Buttler as the first-choice, he was more bothered about making the best use of his opportunity. 

“I think every competitor wants to play. So when you go a long period without, it is a challenge. But luckily I get an opportunity now," luckily he did, he not just got an opportunity but made an immediate impact, not just with the gloves. 

When he walked in to bat, England were in shambles, at 52/5. Ben Stokes had just walked back to the hut, bowled brilliantly by Ravichandran Ashwin. The pitch was devilish but still had plenty of positives for batsmen who worked hard. Ashwin and Axar were tormenting, the top five had no clue. There was Ollie Pope at the other end, Foakes at the strikers end. 

The advice that he would have got from the top would have been to sweep the ball but he quite didn’t sweep it first up. That’s where he drew the line between practical and theoretical knowledge. Sweeping on the surface was one of the best options but even that wasn’t guaranteed to give you success. That’s where Foakes, the specialist wicketkeeper and his approach came right. 

"It was extremely difficult," Foakes told the host broadcaster, Star Sports, he didn’t mince words, not one bit after his innings. 

Having seen the ball rise, keep low and snarl across the batsmen in the first innings, Foakes stayed calm, composed. He wasn’t perplexed by not sweeping, not sticking by the plans but more focused on staying in the moment. The Surrey-man knew that patience was key, even before Ravichandran Ashwin specified it in the presser. He had played in Galle before, conditions similar but Chennai-Ashwin and India were always going to be a tougher ask.

"I was just trying to play for the ball that wasn't going to rag, try to play within my limits, and play the ball late, basically - not get too far outside my bubble,” he added.

"It's obviously extremely tough and it's probably not going to get any easier. Balls are going to spit past us, balls are going to keep low, and so we have to play within our own gameplans, our own limits, and try to put pressure on the bowlers where we can but also back our defence, too."

It almost looked like he was the most experienced of batsmen, he looked assuring, he looked calm and most importantly, solid with his approach against the Indian spinners, who were simply relishing the bite off the pitch. Every run of his weighed in gold but the technique was diamond. He swept only when he grew in confidence and that was evident in the way he went about things. An unbeaten 42, where he ran out of partners, Foakes looked confident, assured and more importantly, looked like England’s best bat.

On day three, just to make things better, Foakes got off a run-out to send back Cheteshwar Pujara and it didn’t end there. He later was involved in Rohit’s stumping, a similar one to how he nearly got him out in the first innings. This time around, he was milli-seconds quicker than the first innings attempt. His hands were right on point, his hips flexible enough to grasp that low down or high-up, Foakes was at his brilliant best. 

So when he inflicted Rohit Sharma’s dismissal, off a sharp stumping opportunity, it was - life coming to a full circle for him, not just as a wicketkeeper but as a cricketer, who was making his Test comeback after two years. The cherry to top it all, his stumping that saw the back of Pant showed that wicketkeeping is an art, a dying other rather in the age of batsman-wicket keeper instead of wicketkeeper-batsman. On his 28th birthday, with the Chennai crowd yelling 'Happy Birthday' at the top of their lungs, Foakes' performance surely resonated with the crowd. 

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