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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Foakes, he is the world’s best ’keeper

It dates back to when Foakes was about 15. “I jokingly told him once to stump slowly. You are too quick for the umpires", said Tony Stubb.

Written by Sriram Veera | Mumbai |
Updated: February 16, 2021 8:26:29 am
Ben Foakes stumping Rishabh Pant off the bowling of Jack Leach on the third day of the second Test. (BCCI)

There is one Ben Foakes story told by his childhood coach Tony Stubbs, who has seen him from the age of six and is still in touch. It is about his wicketkeeping skills that have made Indian fans gasp in awe. It dates back to when Foakes was about 15. “I jokingly told him once to stump slowly. You are too quick for the umpires!”

It turns out the teenager was upset that the umpires in club cricket were missing his hand-flashes that would send the bails flying with batsmen’s back feet barely above the ground. Stubbs’ point was perhaps that if the young ’keeper slightly delayed the breaking of the stumps, the batsmen would stumble out more and the umpires could catch the trespass. “He was that good, even as a kid. It’s a God-given gift,” says Stubbs, the coach at Foakes’ cricket club ‘Frinton On Sea’, named after the seaside town in Essex.

A bit like the Rohit Sharma dismissal, then. Without television replays, Foakes wouldn’t have been awarded that stumping; he was too quick for the naked eye. Sharma’s foot was just about off the ground and even when he was waiting for the verdict, the batsman wore a confident look perhaps thinking no one could be that quick. After all, it wasn’t MS Dhoni behind the stumps, but a nasty shock awaited him.

From an early age

Ben Foakes, second from right, kneeling on the front row. Behind him standing is brother Matt (second from right on back row) . The coach is Tony Stubbs . (Photo courtesy: Tony Stubbs)

However, it’s a catch from when he was 14 that still sticks in Stubbs’ mind. “I can still see it now. He was 14, it was an outswinger and the batsman had shaped for the drive. Ben had moved to his right, but it came off the inside edge. But the kid jack-knifed stunningly and dived to his left to take an incredible catch. He calmly dusted himself off, threw the ball in the air, and walked towards his team-mates. I was fielding that day and couldn’t believe he had taken it. As India would now have seen him, he is the world’s best ’keeper!” Stubbs purrs in pride.

Foakes’s brother Matt, who played for the same club, also dates the catching skill to the same time period. “He started talking worldies [slang for extraordinary catches] as soon as he came into the first team about 15. His hands were always too quick for umpires in our league. He was always a natural.”

In a video for his bat sponsor Gray-Nicolls, Foakes talks about his art. “Keeping the head still is the main thing. I was struggling a little bit with the wobble. I was tensing up. I can’t quite stress enough how important it is to keep these [he touches the left and the right shoulder] as heavy as you can. That changed my ’keeping. If you can keep that feeling within your body, all of a sudden it becomes a different game. I keep my head at the ball and let the body take care of itself. It’s so much easier to come up from down. Keeping your head to the ball allows you to keep down.”

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Ben has “18.09.06” inked on his left wrist, a reminder of the day his father died. When Foakes was five, it was his father Peter who took him and his brother Matt to the club and introduced a love for the game. Peter was a referee in Premier League football and had worked on games with Paul Gascoigne in his time. “It was all of a sudden and a great shock to all of us. I can’t speak for Ben (who was 13 then) but cricket probably helped in the coping process. He threw himself into the game. Peter was a lovely man, a friend, I remember many an evening at the club. His two kids listening to the banter between Peter and the club members about this and that. Both the brothers were very good-looking, even as kids,” Stubbs laughs.

There is a reason behind that laughter. In the changeroom, inside their club’s dressing room, there is a mirror on which an inscription runs: ‘Mirror Mirror on the wall, Foakesy is the fairest of them all”.

Matt explains. “One of the old boys at the club used to think Ben and myself took too long to get ready after games so put that mirror up in our honour when we moved to London and left the club.”

More evidence is littered along the driveway. Nestled in a tree, a signboard reads, ‘Ben Foakes Drive’. Underneath, in red colour and all caps, it says, ‘But Matthew Foakes is better looking’. “The club were proud of Ben after Sri Lanka, so named the track down to the club after him. I think it was my mate’s mum that added the other bit!” says Matt.

Dream debut

The brothers are thick, and it comes out in the manic journey that Matt took when he learned that his brother was going to make his Test debut in Sri Lanka in 2018. “He texted me a day before saying that he will be playing next day,” Matt says. He rushed immediately to the airport and managed to reach Sri Lanka by the evening of the first day when his brother had rescued England from 103 for 5 with an unbeaten 87 by close of play. The brothers had dinner together and it was Matt who was a “quivering wreck”. The next day, the dream unfolded. “My first hour of watching him in test cricket included his century and first catch. It was very special that I was able to make it there in time to experience it. I was a very proud brother.”

Their mother Fiona, a teacher who these days is a mentor for academy players at Essex County Cricket Club, wasn’t so lucky. “I got a text as well. Unfortunately, my phone was silent and that was two hours later. I don’t live near the airport. I got home, threw things in a suitcase and went. I booked my flight tickets on the train to Heathrow,” she said then in a BBC interview. She was in Dubai on transit and following the score online when her son got to the hundred. “I was a bumbling wreck. Sleep-deprived and very happy!” And when the talk veers to good looks in that interview, his mother quips, “comes from the mother!”.

Back at the club, deliriousness and champagne were in the air. “We were up there at 4 am to catch the cricket on the big screen as a group,” Stubbs says. “Not much sleep. Great joy and drinks, even though some might say it was a bit early in the day!” he laughs. This Test against India has been relatively calmer, he has been watching it at home. “Ben owes a lot to his mother,” Stubbs says. “When he got into the Essex age-group cricket, she would drive him on the highway from Frinton to Chelmsford. Not a great road too, lots of accidents frequently.” Matt agrees. “My Mum spent half her time driving Ben around to all his games and sessions and still comes up to London to watch him at the Oval all the time. She’s definitely a big part of his success.”

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The euphoria around the debut was also because of the hurdles in the way of Foakes getting there. First, Essex couldn’t find a place for him. “They had James Foster and wouldn’t play Ben,” Stubbs says. The shift to Surrey eased things up as Alec Stewart, in charge of county cricket at Surrey, immediately pronounced him the “best keeper in the world”.

But England wouldn’t listen. First, there was Jonny Bairstow and when they started to look beyond him as a Test ’keeper, they went for Jos Buttler. Even after the debut hundred in Sri Lanka, Foakes was left in the cold pretty soon after. Matt would remind his brother that “he was still getting to play for Surrey and play cricket for a living which most people can only dream about”. He went back to county cricket but Frinton seethed. “Astonishing, really, that they wouldn’t just give him a go. What more he needed to do?” Stubbs turns rhetorical.

Check the Twitter feed of Frinton club for the last few years. Humorous whining about Foakes’ absence from the England team is a running theme. Video clips of his ’keeping are Gif-ed. Messages to selectors are sent. Charming parochialism has never looked better. “Parochialism?” Stubbs sneezes. “He is the BEST ’KEEPER in the world!” Another laugh. Every now and then he would return from Surrey to play a club game, especially when it was in trouble. “In 2014, he got us out of relegation. Now, we are at a successful place.” Foakes’ image is stuck on to the clubhouse bar’s clock, the hands of time arc around his face. “I am still the better looking one, 100%,” says Matt.

There is a cliched line about wicketkeepers: ‘A good ’keeper goes unnoticed. You only see them when they make a mistake’. That line can be binned for Foakes and an extra cess can be charged to the tickets to say: come watch Foakes keep.

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