Ben Foakes: I couldn't even focus on the ball... but now I am loving my cricket again

Will Macpherson
Evening Standard
Getty Images
Getty Images

The past 16 months have been some journey for Ben Foakes, who was on Tuesday named in England’s Test squad to tour Sri Lanka.

In November 2018, he was named man of the series for his stylish runs and skilful wicketkeeping in England’s whitewash of the same opponents, having been rushed over as injury cover for Jonny Bairstow. Two middling January Tests in the Caribbean later, he was dropped.

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The only international cricket he has played since were surprise ODI and T20 debuts in May (in the former, he made a match-saving 61 not out against Ireland), and by the end of the county summer with Surrey, he says: “Bowlers were running in and I was phasing out, I couldn’t focus on the ball.”

The words he uses to describe last season jar: “zombie-like”, “burnout”, “not in the right headspace”, “I felt blank”.

So, by September and the end of his worst first-class summer with the bat, Foakes, at 26, felt broken.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

His longest break completely away ever from the game had been the three weeks between the 2018 summer and that first call to Sri Lanka. He thinks it is 12 tours with England Lions, but you can see how he may have lost count. He knows this is his first winter without playing overseas for a decade. The result is feeling “worn down” and “like I’ve been playing 20 years”.

This from a man who loves his job. Wicketkeeping, he says, is “a passion”, and his life’s work seems to be reaching the level of Chris Read and James ­Foster, an early mentor at Essex.

That said, he first felt the need for an extended break three winters ago, but “I never wanted to say no [to a Lions tour], because I wanted to play for England”. This time, a break was ­essential: the pathway is gilded, but can be a little suffocating.

“I have experienced it a little the last couple of years but got away with it,” he says. “I definitely felt more of it this time. I needed a break, something didn’t feel right. [Before] I’ve covered it up almost and gone on a tour.”

So he went to the United States, the Caribbean and has enjoyed various European mini-breaks — including being stuck in Rome on Sunday due to Storm Ciara. Before he goes to Sri Lanka, he has a trip to Florida to see his partner’s family and his brother’s stag-do in Budapest.

It has been “much needed” time away from cricket faces and places. “On tour, even on a day off, you’re still switched on,” he says. “It’s hard to get out of that sense that you’re there for a job. To know I wouldn’t be playing cricket for however long, to relax, was awesome.

“I found trying to get through last year for Surrey really difficult. I started to see it creeping into my ­displays and thought something needed to change.

“It [county cricket] is professional and competitive, everyone has that edge. When you go out there and you’re zombie-like, it’s difficult. I felt blank, that sort of thing.”

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

He admits, too, that the England ­situation contributed, but there is no bitterness.

“I felt it was harsh [being dropped] because Sri Lanka went so well,” he says. “In the West Indies, I felt in quite good form but got out in some really random ways, weird dismissals. That happens, but it was bad timing.

“I did struggle with that [coming to terms with it]. I had six years in the Lions programme, which is hard work after county seasons. All that slog, then finally playing in Sri Lanka, which was such a high. It was something I didn’t think would happen because Jos [Buttler] and Jonny had been so good.

“To finally get there and to get man of the series and for it to go so well, obviously, I was on cloud nine. Two games later, before you know it, you are out. Regardless whether you feel hard done by, that is quite a difficult situation to come to terms with, especially if you don’t know where you stand.”

On his break, Foakes was disconnected enough that he did not realise his mate Rory Burns had played a Test in South Africa. Foakes thought he had injured his ankle before the series began and got a gentle reminder from his county captain that he had actually made 84 in the First Test at Centurion.

Foakes returned part-time to the gym at The Oval in November (“Not fun”, he says of Surrey strength and conditioning coach Daz Veness’s regime), then to hitting and catching balls after Christmas.

“I am loving it again,” he says. “It has already made a massive difference to my focus. Last year, bowlers in games were running in and I was kind of phasing out, I couldn’t focus on the ball. I couldn’t focus on game plans, I couldn’t stop myself doing things.

“Now I have clarity of thought back, that tunnel vision when the ball comes down.”

Fittingly, he was with Surrey director of cricket Alec Stewart, practising his keeping, when the call came yesterday morning. Stewart answered the call and gave a big thumbs-up.

“I am just happy,” he says. “The four or five squads since I last played, it was more hope than expectation with every one that passes by. There’s a little bit of relief to be back where you want to be.”

Foakes looks set to be Buttler’s understudy in Sri Lanka and returns with a broader perspective on the situation.

“I’m definitely at peace with it now,” he says. “That in itself is draining, just wondering, with squad announcements and all that. It is a lot easier said than done, trying to blank that stuff out. I’ve said it for like three years now, but I think I’m there. There’s not much value in asking why, you can’t control it. It’s ­forgetting about that, enjoying your cricket and trying to do well.”​

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