Foakes a boon but Stokes a windfall
Root’s tourists can be the benefi ciary of all- rounder’s revival in the West Indies
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.
The drive and application of England’s Ben Stokes after the diffi culties of this year has been a revelation