Ben Foakes and the revived art of wicketkeeping

England wicketkeeper Ben Foakes

“What Ben was doing was poetry in motion – it was the difference between a mechanical keeper and a natural keeper, I just loved every second of it,” says Jack Russell, an artist in every sense of the word.

Instead, he’ll be all too aware that he needs to combine his magic with the gloves with scoring heavily to ensure that if Jos Buttler returns, it’s as a batsman alone.

The former England wicketkeeper grew up watching the likes of Bob Taylor and Alan Knott behind the stumps for county and country and would marvel at their dexterity and poise. Now a generation of England supporters have a poster boy of their own.

Joe Root’s side might have endured a torrid four days in Chennai but the glove work of Foakes has catapulted him into elite company, with Russell proclaiming him to be the best in the world. A notion that Adam Gilchrist, the former Australian great, also appeared to concur with. “Geez, how brilliant is Ben Foakes,” he tweeted after another masterclass by the Surrey man in India’s second innings.

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Sarah Taylor, the former England women’s keeper, meanwhile, described Foakes as “unreal”, while Kiran More, the ex-Indian stumper, said that Foakes had been ‘one of the best overseas keepers in Indian conditions’. It’s hard to argue with that assessment given his three stumpings in the Test hadn’t been matched since Knott achieved the feat in 1968.

After his performance on a pitch labeled a beach by Jonathan Agnew, the BBC’s cricket correspondent, it was almost as if Foakes had turned back the sands of time to an era when wicketkeepers were judged on keeping ability first and run-scoring second.

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“Ben has that natural ability and you can’t buy that,” says Russell. “He’s just so skillful. It was great to watch. The stumping he took off the left-hander [Axar Patel], that was just magic, pure magic.

“If you’re Test keeper on that pitch then you’re talking about skill levels needing to be honed to the kind of level that the SAS are at. I can’t remember seeing a pitch turn like that on the opening day for donkey’s years and when you’re standing up to the wickets, all your flaws can be exposed.

“But I’m not sure he has any.”

Foakes now has five stumpings in just six Tests and although that tally is a crude measurement of excellence – Buttler has one and Jonny Bairstow 13 – it’s an indication of the kind of value that a keeper of his quality can bring.

It was telling that Jack Leach pointed at Foakes in appreciation in double-quick time as he celebrated the wicket of Rishabh Pant after another lightning piece of work on the third day.

Foakes knows that winning plaudits will do little to help him cement his place in the side, having had to wait two years between his most recent cap against the West Indies and the match in Chennai.

Foakes in action with bat in hand during the first Test against India

“I was brought up with it banged into you – [as a wicketkeeper] you don’t drop Viv Richards, you don’t drop Matty Hayden, you don’t give Ricky Ponting a second chance,” says Russell, who is now a full-time artist with a gallery in the Cotswolds.

“That’s why wicketkeepers are so important. They can be the difference between winning a game and losing it.

“I go on about this but it’s a story worth telling. I remember [ former Essex and England wicketkeeper] James Foster taking two stumpings in a T20 game in the early 2000s. Those two wickets completely changed the game.

“It’s there’s one format you can play your best keeper then it’s T20 surely. You can bat them at 10 or 11 because you shouldn’t be getting bowled out.

“It’s the same principle in Test cricket. One ball can completely change the course of a match. England have to work out how important those stumpings and those catches are.

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“And let’s be honest, it’s not like he can’t bat is it? The guy has his own batting technique but he can get you runs. What does he average at the moment, over 40? That will come down over a period of time, perhaps, but if he averages in the 30s and you’ve got the best wicketkeeper in the world then you’ve got to be happy with that, haven’t you?”

For years, England could boast of having the best wicketkeepers on the planet with the triumvirate of Russell, Knott and Taylor – whose glove work was so precise that he cut off the webbing from his gloves in order to get a better feel for the ball – setting the global standard.

The arrival of the wicketkeeping all-rounder, which began when Alec Stewart began regularly taking Russell’s place in the England side in the early 1990s, then shifted the emphasis away from the glove work, meaning masterful practitioners such as Chris Read and Foster spent the majority of their careers in county cricket rather than England colours.

Now, a generation on, Foakes has the next two Tests in Ahmedabad to attempt to cement his place in the side for a hugely busy Test summer and then the Ashes beyond.

If he does, then the true art of wicketkeeping could be well on its way to restoration.

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