‘I’m not very Bazball’ – Why England keep ignoring Ben Foakes

Ben Foakes - ‘I’m not very Bazball’ - Why England keep ignoring Ben Foakes
With two Test tons Ben Foakes is more than capable with the bat - Action Images via Reuters/Paul Childs

He is, according to Ben Stokes, the best wicketkeeper in the world. He averages 39 in Test cricket since the start of last summer and the next Ashes Test will be played at Old Trafford — scene of his fine century against South Africa last year.

So why do England keep ignoring Ben Foakes — particularly given the worries around Jonny Bairstow, who has missed eight chances behind the stumps and averages just 24 with the bat this series?

“I’m not, as you’d say, Bazball,” Foakes admitted in February. It seems as if he was right.

Bairstow, of course, very much is. Regardless of his struggles this series, England retain the memories of his stunning batting last year. In 2023, he hit six Test centuries — first lifting England from 36 for four at Sydney, and then giving Bazball lift-off with consecutive innings of 136, 71 not out and 114 not out in run chases against New Zealand and India.

Foakes is simply not prone to playing such buccaneering innings. While England’s selectors were finalising their squad on Monday, Foakes hit 46 from 116 balls for Surrey against Nottinghamshire: a valuable innings to lift his side from 67 for three, but also one that highlighted how distinct his batting methods are from Bairstow.

Ben Foakes - ‘I’m not very Bazball’ - Why England keep ignoring Ben Foakes

Retaining Bairstow is also in keeping with the consistency of selection that has been a hallmark of the Bazball era. From the moment that England named Bairstow in their squad for the Test against Ireland — with Dan Lawrence the reserve batsman, and no Foakes even as a backup — England have made their thinking unambiguous. Changing tack now might impact not just the identity of the wicketkeeper, but the broader environment in the side.

Foakes’ cause has also been hampered by Ben Stokes’ injury. Had Stokes been fully fit, then Foakes could have come in at Headingley in place of a bowler, with Bairstow deployed as a specialist batsman. But with Stokes not bowling a single ball, England picked five other bowlers, excluding Joe Root.

At Leeds, England continued their remarkable run of results with this team structure. Since the summer of 2018, England have played 10 Tests with five specialist bowlers in addition to Stokes. They have won every single time. The sequence includes two wins at home to India in 2018, twin victories in Sri Lanka that year and in Pakistan last winter, and defeating Australia at The Oval in 2019.

While the record is freakish, it also points to specific advantages of this set-up. The extra bowling depth provides insurance — something  England lacked at Edgbaston in 2019, when James Anderson bowled only four overs, leaving Stokes as the third seamer, but what they had at Headingley when Ollie Robinson only bowled 11.2 overs. It also maximises the effectiveness of a shock option like Mark Wood, allowing him to be deployed in short bursts, and makes it easier to accommodate Chris Woakes — who is now averaging 35.5 with the bat and 22.7 with the ball in home Tests. England’s relative dearth of specialist batsmen means that fringe batsmen rarely contribute so much.

Retaining five bowlers alongside Stokes renders it impossible to pick Foakes alongside Bairstow. And, if Foakes was picked in Bairstow’s place, it would leave England looking light on batting, with both Moeen Ali and Foakes in their top seven.

Foakes has a very solid overall Test record with the bat but there is reason to think that his game is less well-suited to Australia. Foakes averages 40 against spin in Tests but a more modest 28 against pace. He has also been discomforted by high pace, twice suffering poor tours of West Indies; against deliveries over 87mph, he averages 15.

Though Foakes has often been an invaluable counterpoint to players of more elan, his own Test batting has changed little under the new regime, his strike rate rising from 48 before Bazball to 52 after. This might be a particular concern given the fears about England’s tail. If there is a collapse at the other end, the No.7 might conceivably only have a few dozen balls to bat. England’s belief remains that Bairstow is likely to score more runs in that period.

Whenever Bairstow shells a chance, there is a tendency to proclaim Foakes as an infallible alternative. One does not exist. “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master,” Ernest Hemingway observed of writing; so it is with wicketkeeping.

Against pace, Foakes has only taken 84 per cent of catches, according to CricViz — the lowest figure of any Test keeper to play five Tests since 2018, when he made his debut. Such a figure cannot capture everything about a keeper’s worth. For instance, Foakes dives at balls that other keepers would miss and is especially adroit standing up to the stumps, even against bowlers as quick as Stuart Broad. But, while there is a gap in the quality of keeping between Foakes and Bairstow, this is generally overstated.

None of this means that Foakes will not play Test cricket again; indeed, there is every chance of him doing so in India next winter, in conditions when his dexterity standing up to spin could be crucial. But, aged 30, there is also a growing risk that, when a vacancy next comes up England move to a fresh generation. Durham’s Ollie Robinson has three centuries this year; after hitting 221 this week, Somerset’s James Rew now has five; Surrey’s Jamie Smith showed his belligerence on the England Lions tour of Sri Lanka this year.

Two months ago, England’s bet was that, for all Foakes’ qualities, over the course of an Ashes series Bairstow might contribute less behind the stumps but was more likely to win matches in front of them. At this hinge point of the Ashes, England have decided to see their bet through until the end, to avoid cashing out until after the Oval. Really, it would not have been in this side’s nature to do anything else.