Foakes a boon but Stokes a wind­fall

Root’s tourists can be the benefi ciary of all- rounder’s re­vival in the West In­dies

The Observer - Sport - - Sport Cricket -

It is hard to re­call a more tran­quil, stress- free or suc­cess­ful tour. The last time Eng­land white­washed op­po­nents away from home in a three- Test se­ries was in the spring of 1963 in New Zealand, un­der the lead­er­ship of Ted Dex­ter. Af­ter a gru­elling Ashes se­ries Ken Bar­ring­ton and Colin Cow­drey scored stacks of runs be­fore Fred True­man and Fred Tit­mus kept bowl­ing out a mod­est Kiwi side. It was not ex­pected to be quite so straight­for­ward against Sri Lanka this win­ter.

The plau­dits have been de­liv­ered quite prop­erly: for Joe Root’s lead­er­ship , the all- round ex­cel­lence of Ben Stokes, the spin tri­umvi­rate, who, though not so canny as Tit­mus, Ray Illing­worth and their oc­ca­sional ally, Bar­ring­ton, 55 years ago, of­fered so many op­tions, as we were con­stantly re­minded. Ben Foakes, the man of the se­ries, made a spec­tac­u­lar en­try into Test cricket. Aside from win­ning, they all played with a smile and were sen­si­tively man­aged. Even the se­lec­tors emerged with credit.

Oddly, the worst mo­ment of the tour may have had the most sig­nifi cant con­se­quences. On 19 Oc­to­ber Jonny Bairstow dam­aged his an­kle play­ing foot­ball, a freak­ish in­jury since there was no one within fi ve feet of him when he fell. As the grav­ity of his in­jury be­came ap­par­ent Foakes, who had been over­looked in the orig­i­nal se­lec­tion, was sum­moned to Sri Lanka at a time when he was look­ing for­ward to a six- month break from cricket.

As the Test se­ries ap­proached, the ex­pec­ta­tion was Joe Denly, a hunch pur­sued by Ed Smith, would be in the fi rst Test team but he failed to im­press as a bats­man or a Bar­ring­ton- style leg- spin­ner in a cou­ple of low- key prac­tice matches. The no­tion that Foakes was as likely to score runs as Denly as well as de­liv­er­ing his ex­per­tise up to the stumps gained trac­tion – Trevor Bayliss had been highly im­pressed with him when he was the re­serve keeper on the Ashes tour. So Foakes played in Galle – and that now looks like a su­perb se­lec­tion.

Like many of the best picks, this was a bit of an ac­ci­dent. Foakes, re­mem­ber, was not orig­i­nally se­lected and it took Bairstow’s in­jury and Denly’s poor form to cat­a­pult him into the team and to leave Jos But­tler play­ing as a spe­cial­ist bats­man. This is of­ten the way: events take over.

In 2000 Mar­cus Trescoth­ick was fi rst picked for Eng­land, for a one- day in­ter­na­tional against Zim­babwe, be­cause of a sud­den in­jury to Nick Knight; Alas­tair Cook was fl own out to make his Test de­but in Nag­pur as a late re­place­ment in 2006 be­cause Trescoth­ick was un­ex­pect­edly in­dis­posed. No doubt these great play­ers would have sur­faced any­way but their ini­tial se­lec­tions came not from a blind­ing light in a meet­ing of wise men but af­ter a sud­den with­drawal, which was fol­lowed by an ur­gent, last- minute sum­mons.

There are oc­ca­sions when se­lec­tors can take more credit. In re­cent times this might in­clude the picks of Jonathan Trott in 2009, Moeen Ali in 2014 and in 2018 the re­call of But­tler and the call- up of Sam Cur­ran. In each case those sum­moned were not the ob­vi­ous choices they soon be­came with the benefi t of hind­sight.

The suc­cess of Foakes means he is bound to re­main be­hind the stumps and as a No 7 bats­man in the Caribbean . If suc­cess­ful against West In­dies he is highly likely to stay in place for the Ashes. This may not be con­ve­nient news for Bairstow, whose pref­er­ence is to be a wick­et­keeper - bats­man, but by be­com­ing the fi rst English Test cen­tu­rion at No 3 in 52 in­nings in Colombo, he is well- qual­ifi ed to con­tinue in that role. He could eas­ily ex­cel in the Caribbean at No 3. It will be trick­ier to do so in the Ashes se­ries against the best pace at­tack in the world ( when all the Aus­tralians are fi t) but Bairstow may well be as equipped for this role as any­one .

The no­tion of pick­ing the best bats­men and then fret­ting about the or­der they ar­rive at the crease has much to com­mend it. All this comes about af­ter a freak in­jury when play­ing foot­ball.

There is one other bizarre pos­i­tive to be ob­served in this Eng­land team and it re­volves around Stokes. He re­ceived quite an en­comium from Bayliss and Root af­ter the fi nal Test. Both were ea­ger to point out his bare fi gures, which were fi ne but not that strik­ing, fail to rep­re­sent the im­pact he had on the team .

In a cu­ri­ous way Root is now en­joy­ing a Stokes div­i­dend af­ter the ag­o­nies of his ab­sence in the last Ashes se­ries. Some cap­tains are lucky to have cham­pion all- rounders in their side at the right time. Mike Brear­ley had Ian Botham at his fi ttest and hun­gri­est when he was ea­ger to show the world he was the best be­tween 1977 and 1981; like­wise Michael Vaughan with An­drew Flintoff in 2004- 05.

Now Root can be the benefi ciary of Stokes’s sec­ond com­ing. Stokes soon proved him­self as a Test crick­eter but since his re­turn to the side af­ter the in­ci­dent in Bris­tol, he has be­come the most driven player in the team in a man­ner way beyond the es­tab­lished Botham or Flintoff.

Five years af­ter his Test de­but he prac­tises for hours on end, he trains ever more fe­ro­ciously; his com­mit­ment is ab­so­lute; he does not cruise on his rep­u­ta­tion. So Root is for­tu­nate : in his team he now has a ma­ture Stokes seek­ing new peaks – af­ter a set­back far more dam­ag­ing than an in­jured an­kle.

ISHARA S KODIKARA/ AFP/ GETTY IM­AGES

 The drive and ap­pli­ca­tion of Eng­land’s Ben Stokes af­ter the diffi cul­ties of this year has been a rev­e­la­tion

Vic Marks

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