Eng vs NZ 2022 – Ben Foakes – ‘It has changed the way I look at Test cricket. There is another side


Among the glazed eyes of those packed into Nottingham’s Mega Munch in the early hours of Wednesday, several of whom had secured a stunning victory at Trent Bridge against New Zealand, stood one looking the freshest of the lot.

Ben Foakes was propped at the greasy counter, cap on, seemingly with his wits in check while those around him sported tell-tale ruddy cheeks. His aura was as it was at the end of the first and second Tests when he helped England home: calm and unflustered after the chaos. Amid the bombastic exploits this last month, he has been the designated driver.

A few days on, Foakes admits to ESPNcricinfo his look was deceiving. “I didn’t feel fresh,” he laughs. “I think it’s the first time I’ve actually been out this year. The next day was a complete write-off.” As for his order, he went healthy (ish). “I didn’t go chips, just a fried chicken burger. It was good, actually. Though I suppose everything at 4am is.”

Memories of getting back to the hotel are understandably hazy. But the imprints of a series win, moreover how England chased down 299 in 50 overs on the final day to secure it, will have greater permanency. From the dressing room to the bar and on to late-night kebab shop, many of the chats between players, even members of the public – some of who had been in the stands earlier that day – circled back to the efforts of that day.

There is a tangible sense of fun around the men’s Test side. A renewed freedom under the leadership of Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes, both in their expression and the fact they were out that late at all. The midnight curfew that had been in place since the end of 2017 momentarily lifted to savour their feat.

“Any time there is a Test like that, which is very rare, you can feel it in the stadium and around,” says Foakes. “The atmosphere inside was incredible and you could see that filtering out of the ground. After a tough couple of years [in which England won just one Test in 17], it was a really good buzz in English cricket. With the new era, the way it’s talked about how we are going to play, it’s all blended in as positive vibes.”

In the infancy of such upward flux, there is a tendency to laud two wins picked up against the reigning (if slightly weathered) World Test Champions as totems rather than merely early foundations. Cynics might regard a blowout with five Tests still to come this summer, and indeed the final match against New Zealand this Thursday, as a premature celebration. Sure, it’s been fun. But the dry mouth and headaches won’t be far off.

Except, for those involved, this feels different. McCullum’s approach may have a whiff of “no tactics, just vibes”. But there is a belief among those who go out there and live it that he is instigating a shift in what English Test cricket should be, how it should feel and who it is for. The best encapsulation came in that final tea break, with 160 runs still to get.

“Baz’s team talk at tea – it was like William Wallace!” Foakes says. “After he was done, everyone was desperate to get out there.

“The traditional Test approach in that situation would be ‘see how it goes, see how many wickets we’ve got left, then if the situation isn’t there, do we shut up shop?’ He was like, ‘Nah, we’re not doing that. We’re winning this game. If we don’t, so be it – we’ve done it the right way. It doesn’t matter if we don’t win this game.’ And it took the pressure off.”

To English cricket’s conservative ears, it is inspirational talk bordering on heresy. The gloom that has encapsulated the Test set-up is because it does matter when they don’t win. It is why Joe Root had to step down from the captaincy, even in the form of his life. Why others beyond the field of play have lost their jobs. Why, going into the Test summer, there was such widespread disillusionment with the format in this country. All the more reason, according to Foakes, why such talk needs to be so strong. Any alterations to the fabric of Test cricket require the players to do the sewing.

“I had a few questions and didn’t want to be too indecisive and not know how I am meant to be playing. [McCullum] has been really clear with the doubts I had and it was good for me to be open with him”

“It has changed the way I look at Test cricket,” Foakes says. “With playing for England, there are obviously a lot of pressures, a lot of criticisms and things like that. If you think about that too much, it weighs on you. But over the last two weeks, it’s clear to see the positives and how amazing playing for England can be. Baz and Stokesy, the way they are, promote that.

“‘Ground-breaking’ is too big of a word. But when I think about it, my approach to Test cricket has always just been about endurance, mentally slow for a reason, and meant to be calculated. When you play for England, there is another side to it – the entertainment factor.

“I guess it’s similar to the New Zealand game a year ago [at Lord’s, where England declined to chase 273 in 75 overs]: we could have gone for the win, but didn’t. For pure entertainment value, within the crowd and at home, even if you lose that game at Trent Bridge, you’re probably doing more for Test cricket. There’s a balance in the game and trying to improve the viewership of it as well.”

During the post-tea carnage in Nottingham, when England went from 139 for 4 to 272 for 5 inside 11.3 overs, 93 of those 133 runs from the blade of Jonny Bairstow – the man dismissed, having made 136 – Foakes was in a unique position. He had access to one of the best views in the house in the home dressing room, while burdened with impending responsibility as the next man in. Usually “really nervous” while waiting his turn, he was uncharacteristically at ease. “I usually pop out the back to keep myself busy. I must have gone to do it 10 times but every time there was a six, so I kept coming back to see what had happened.

“We needed a lot of runs and it should have been a tight finish. But I was so chilled. When Jonny did get out, I was shocked because I was nestled in watching the game. Everyone during their partnership was like, ‘what the hell is going on?!'”

Having snapped out of spectator mode, he went out to the middle and accompanied Stokes to the conclusion. He even had to push the skipper ahead of him, insisting he lead the pair off having finished unbeaten on 75. “I’ve just tapped it around for 12,” was the rebuff when Stokes insisted the pair walk off Trent Bridge together.

He had a similar walk at Lord’s the week before, albeit with Root further ahead following his 115 not out to Foakes’ 32. Nevertheless, he was clapped through the Long Room, fulfilling an experience he had always wished for as a kid.

That was an overdue home debut, coming as a new era lock rather than a seat-filler as the previous 11 caps abroad had been. His work behind the stumps so far has been as you’d expect from the poster boy of glovemanship. The two finishing cameos speak of assurance, along with 56 in the first innings of the second Test, a welcome third fifty-plus score in his career. His previous one, a half-century against Sri Lanka in November 2018, followed on from a debut knock of 107 the match before.

As expected in almost four years since that bright start, form has fluctuated and, in turn, technique tweaked. A first-class average of 24.58 in the 2019 summer elicited a change from a more open stance brought about by adjustments made to county bowlers going wide and moving the ball back into right-handers. His back hip was coming through too much, creating unforced errors against the moving Dukes ball. He has also changed his bats to the shorter blade version used by Gray Nicolls stablemate Ollie Pope.

The next thing Foakes wants to get right is his approach. Even in this “express yourself environment”, there is plenty of critical thinking taking place.

“In the first Test at Lord’s in the first innings, I ended up playing a crappy shot just because I was a bit in-between. Batting with Jimmy [Anderson] I was thinking, ‘what am I meant to be doing here?’ And I ended up playing a wishy-washy shot to a ball I would have left from Tim Southee.”

The issue to overcome, he says, is acquiring the flexibility to be a No. 7 in this XI, straddling the fence between the full-time batters and the tail. The difference between operating as a facilitator or aggressor is just one ball at the other end. For someone accustomed to batting five at Surrey, it is not a natural fit. He has picked McCullum’s brains to untangle his own.

“I had a few questions and I didn’t want to be too indecisive and not know how I am meant to be playing. He’s been really clear with the doubts I had and it was good for me to be that open with him. It means I’m going out into in every innings knowing I have backing.

“I don’t have a massive power game. But I can use my feet, do different sorts of things to accelerate my scoring without being reckless. Going back to that Southee ball – how do I make that a ball I can score off by doing something different? I’ll never do what Rooty did and scoop Southee over my head. I’m never going to try it, but I might be able to do things with my strengths.”

It will take time before we can say the McCullum-Stokes axis has reinvigorated English Test cricket, beyond the third Test at Headingley and even this summer. It’s too soon to say they have reinvented the long-form game. They are merely rolling the dice, trying to get some change.

Any long-term change requires the likes of Foakes to seize the opportunities to truly reframe England’s psyche. It is a different kind of responsibility, one which will feel heavier once this honeymoon period is over.

Right now, though, it feels like a privilege. “I just think it’s a really fun time to be involved,” Foakes beams. “That’s the way I’m looking at it.”

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Vitu_E



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