If you had turned on the television to see Ben Foakes bat for the first time against Sri Lanka yesterday you wouldn’t have guessed he was making his Test debut.
He came to the crease with England in strife at 103-5 but played with such calmness and authority to guide the tourists away from danger to post 342.
His 107 from 202 balls was well deserved and made him the first England wicket-keeper to score a century in Asia and the second to achieve one on debut, after Matt Prior.
Foakes has an old-school temperament to batting. The 25-year-old has a clear plan against the spinners: he keeps it simple and takes singles, which against Sri Lanka’s slightly negative fields were always on offer.
He’s strong through the legside, allowing him to work the spinners to mid-wicket, and he wasn’t tempted to play anything not in his zone. Foakes made the bowlers bowl to him and enjoyed strong partnerships with Jos Buttler, Sam Curran and Adil Rashid.
With a top order packed with aggressors like Moeen Ali, Ben Stokes and Buttler, Foakes looks to provide the perfect counter-balance in the middle.
That’s his batting. But with Jonny Bairstow injured Foakes was picked primarily for his expertise behind the stumps.
Surrey’s director of cricket Alec Stewart hailed him as the world’s best wicket-keeper 18 months ago. That’s a big build-up, but so far he’s been immaculate. In Sri Lanka’s first innings he stumped Dinesh Chandimal off Rashid and took a thin outside edge to dismiss Akila Dananjaya from Moeen’s bowling.
He’s played so well that after just two days of Test cricket that he is already undroppable.
If Bairstow is fit for the second Test in Kandy next week the selectors are going to have a headache. How do you get him back into the side? All three wicket-keepers – Bairstow, Buttler and Foakes – are deserving of places, so I think somebody else will have to miss out.
For me, Foakes is the best keeper out of the three so should retain the gloves. Bairstow may well be peeved, thinking he’s earned the right to keep, but he will just have to bide his time.
There have been suggestions that Buttler or Stokes could move up the batting order, but I think to accommodate Bairstow it would be better if he did so. He opens for the one-day side and is a better fit.
I’m very happy for Foakes because I know how hard he’s worked. I played with him at Surrey – he always had a lot of potential and, importantly, the motivation to improve.
I think his move from Essex in 2014 really benefited him. He’s adapted and taken off in the past few seasons: his wicket-keeping has gone from strength to strength and he’s developed a reputation for scoring runs at vital times.
Crucially, he has gained experience of subcontinent conditions by going on England Lions tours. That’s allowed him to develop and England’s coaches to get an idea just how good he is.
Foakes also spent time playing for Colombo Colts Cricket Club in 2014 – a stint he’s credited with his comfort in the conditions. I played club cricket in Australia before the Ashes so I know just how useful that can be.
In some ways his Test debut seems to have come out of nowhere – Foakes was on holiday in Portugal last week – but he was 12th man in the 2017-18 Ashes so has been around the squad for some time.
Having done the hard yards, Foakes is now reaping the benefits.