ENGLAND TOUR OF SRI LANKA, 2018
Foakes helped England post 321/8 on the opening day. © AFP
Ben Foakes has credited previous exposure to Sri Lanka conditions for his impressive start in Test cricket. On debut at Galle in the opening match of the series, the Surrey and now England wicketkeeper produced a mature knock of 87 not out that took England from 103 for five to 321 for eight at stumps on day one.
A turning pitch, which held up a touch, is a difficult place to make your debut, especially for an English cricketer. But the 25-year-old looked unperturbed as he defended, nudged and, occasionally, charged down the wicket during his impressive stay of 184 balls. Should he find 13 more runs tomorrow, he will become only the second wicketkeeper, after Matt Prior in 2007, to score a century on debut.
That he is in this position, he believes, is thanks to a number of tours to Sri Lanka. Most have come through the England pathway, such as an under 19 tour in 2011 and for the Lions in January and November of 2014 and 2017. But perhaps the most useful visit came in 2014 when he had a stint at Colts Cricket Club in Colombo.
It was here where he played alongside two of Sri Lanka’s main threats in this Test – spinners Dilruwan Perera, who finished day one with four for 70 from his 28 overs, and Akila Dananjaya (one for 96 from 20).
The opportunity arose as part of the ECB’s overseas placement plan, back in 2014. The onus that particular off-season was on improving young players approach to spin and Foakes was one of five players, including Scott Borthwick and Tom Wesley who went on to earn Test caps, to benefit from the scheme. In the last year, Ollie Pope and Mason Crane are two other players to have made their international debuts after enjoying successful placements in Australia.
However, funding cuts mean the scheme is no more. While counties can still send their own players abroad, those from clubs who do not possess the finances to do so will be worse cricketers without the opportunity. The benefit in the example of Foakes is clear to see.
“Obviously coming out here a few times, you get good experience,” said Foakes. “On the Lions it was really good. I played for Colts for a while, where Perera and Akila Dananjaya play,” said Foakes. I got to learn a little bit about them which was fantastic. It definitely (helped me).”
“Also, the thing you can’t really prepare for is the heat, unless you’ve done it. I think playing in this sort of heat a few times really helped.”
Foakes was “shocked” and “surprised” to hear of his Test debut when skipper Joe Root informed him of his selection the day before the match. Even getting called up to the tour was more than he expected this winter.
Having not made the original touring party, Foakes decided to take the winter off, even turning down the chance to play for the Lions against Pakistan A in the UAE. After four winters away in a row, he needed some downtime. A trip to Lisbon with Surrey teammates gave him some respite.
“I’ve had quite a few Lions trips so it (time off) was just to clear my head and get away from cricket for a little while. And then come back fresh. Plans change, don’t they? I was going to have six months off, originally.”
The pitch, while not a raging turner just yet, is allowing the ball to grip.
“When I first went in, I found it quite tough. It was sticking in and quite tacky so you didn’t really feel like you could play your shots too well. It dried out a bit throughout the day so you got a little bit more value. You could play strong shots.”
More of those strong shots will be needed if England are to capitalise on this start, after winning the toss and batting first. Jack Leach will begin with Foakes in the morning on 14 not out. The tourists will continue their attacking approach, even with Foakes’ impending milestone, in a bid to get ahead of the game before the pitch does deteriorate.