God grant England’s batsmen the confidence of the man who wrote the MCC’s Cricket Coaching Book. “It can therefore be laid down as an absolute principle in team selection,” he notes, “that the best wicketkeeper, irrespective of all other considerations, must always be chosen …” That was written in 1952, and, though you would never have guessed it from the tone, the idea was open to debate even then.
Within a decade, England had dropped the peerless Keith Andrew (“a silvery, smooth, slinky shadow behind the stumps,” said his teammate Mickey Stewart) because he wasn’t scoring enough runs and chose the No 6 batsman Jim Parks to take over the wicketkeeping.
In England, the intractable debate about whether you ought to pick the best wicketkeeper regardless of his batting was finally won around the time Graham Gooch first persuaded Mickey’s boy, Alec, to take over the job from the brilliantly gifted Jack Russell, just so England could squeeze a fifth bowler into the team for the fourth Test against Australia in 1991.
They have flirted with picking a specialist keeper in the years since, but the dalliances never lasted long. James Foster and Chris Read had a go, but both lost out to men who were better batsmen; Stewart, Geraint Jones and Matt Prior.
But in India, where the squad rotation policy means Ben Foakes has temporarily taken over from Jos Buttler, we have been afforded a brief glimpse into the other way of doing things. It was Foakes’ 28th birthday on Monday and he spent most of it making a compelling, but futile, contribution to the old argument. His performance on a wickedly difficult pitch felt like a demonstration of some extinct art form, a display of deckle making or damask weaving or some other craft the English used to do. Especially in the first half‑hour of play, when, lurking with intent right behind the stumps, he essentially led the England attack as they tried to force their way back into the match.
Cheteshwar Pujara went first as he came down the pitch to attack Moeen Ali. Pujara hit the ball awkwardly and it ricocheted to short-leg, where Ollie Pope, who caught it above his head, instinctively tossed it back towards Foakes. He ducked down and forward to take the catch then whipped the ball back and across into the stumps. Pujara would have made his ground, but his bat caught in a crack and he dropped it, like a man who had spilled his briefcase running for the bus, and pressed on only to find he was just too late.
He was not the only one. Foakes moves so quickly he was the only man on the field who seemed to appeal for his second dismissal, his judgment finally vindicated by the TV umpire.
Rohit Sharma reached out of the crease to a delivery from Jack Leach that spun past his outside edge. Sharma had stretched just a touch too far, so his toe was teetering on the white line. Before he could wriggle his foot back into his ground Foakes had pulled the ball down and stumped him.
The third was the best of the lot. This time he got Rishabh Pant, who skipped down the pitch to attack Leach and missed a ball that dipped and beat him on the inside. From where Foakes was standing, it must have emerged into view at the very last second, but he pushed his hands through the catch so that his weight was moving forward and stumped him with time to spare.
That made it two stumpings in the space of 15 minutes’ play (Buttler, for the record, has taken one in the 30 Tests he has played as wicketkeeper). “Geez,” wrote Adam Gilchrist on Twitter, “how brilliant is Ben Foakes?”
It didn’t end there. Later in the day, Foakes stood up to the stumps to Stuart Broad as he whistled down a few overs of 80mph leg-cutters. It was an utterly thankless task and an almost ostentatious display of talent, but one, you guess, that a lot of old salts in the keepers’ union would have approved of. They used to judge each other by whether or not they stood up to the medium-pacers, and, incredible as it seems now, the great Alan Knott was criticised because he often refused to do it.
“Wicketkeeping,” said his rival Bob Taylor, “is about standing up, not back, any competent catcher of the ball can do it standing back.”
Maybe Knott had a point. It was not a hugely effective tactic given Foakes dropped a red-hot chance off Ravichandran Ashwin while he was doing it (he missed the chance to stump him, too, somehow it felt like this flaw in the performance only proved how hard it all is to do).
Either way, you know England will revert to Buttler as soon as they can. Even Jonny Bairstow, who clung to the keeper’s gloves like a dog does to a newspaper, seems to have reconciled himself to that. “I’m just focusing on my batting,” he said, during an interview on Channel 4 in the tea break.
So, yes, Foakes will have to go soon enough. But, still, it was glorious while it lasted.