LAWRENCE BOOTH: Ego-free Ben Foakes plays his part to perfection as he tames the pacers and dominates the spinners to hit England’s first Testton since the 2018 debut
- Foakes ran away at a crucial stage on the second morning of the test to hit
- He needed a few runs and faced the scorching pace of South African Anrich Nortje
- Wicket-keeper showed he can also hit a bit by scoring an unbeaten century
When Ben Foakes walked out to bat just half an hour after the second morning of this second LV=Insurance Test, he would have been forgiven for feeling apprehensive.
Possibly the fastest bowler in the world, Anrich Nortje was sniffing the Manchester turf and sniffing at anyone with a bat, and a man who had twice Foakes for pace at Lord’s for scores of six and zero.
To make things even more ominous, Nortje had just removed Jonny Bairstow, who had been caught on the first slip playing with one that was too fast for the usual decision-making process, and Zak Crawley, whose 101-ball wake ended. by a beauty kissing the edge of a defending bat.
Ben Foakes outweighed his recent setbacks by scoring a fantastic century at Old Trafford
Another wicket now, and England would have been six down, with Ben Stokes fresh in the fold and the scores almost even. On a spinning field, and with South Africa building their game plan around the selection of two spinners, the advantage could be theirs.
Foakes’ progress this summer has been almost in a world of its own – distinct from both the gripping psychodrama of the top six and the generosity of the tail. No player on the side seemed less obviously affected by the new regime, except to say that Stokes is clearly judging him.
And yet it wasn’t unfair to point out that Foakes needed a few runs. He had started the series against New Zealand in a promising way, helping Joe Root complete the first of three major chases at Lord’s, then adding half a century to it at Trent Bridge.
Perhaps his most telling feat was to quiet the debate over a Test return for Jos Buttler. But then Foakes dropped out. In fact, thanks to a bad back and Covid, he lost his seat to Sam Billings. Last summer, he missed the game after slipping his socks in the Oval locker room and tearing a hamstring. Did the accident follow him?
Overjoyed Foakes celebrates with Ollie Robinson after reaching his century on Friday
With a series on the line, this was not the time to doubt yourself. Foakes got to work as fifth ball with a neat flick through midwicket for three from Nortje, before scooping a lucky boundary from Kagiso Rabada from the bottom.
For a time, the main feature of his turns was decisive footwork against the spinners, Keshav Maharaj and Simon Harmer. It was almost a return to his first Test innings, a century against Sri Lanka at a gymnast in Galle in November 2018.
But between that game and this, he’d been in and out of the side, adding just two-fifties in 28 innings – a run that could usually be obscured by the enduring excellence of his gauntlet work. In this match, his run saving down the leg side was top notch.
At lunch, Stokes had 34 and Foakes 33. It was the cue for the next phase of his turns: second fiddle after a virtuoso performance. Of the 96 the pair put up between lunch and tea, Stokes made 64 from 90 balls and Foakes 28 from 91. It was skillful, ego-free hitting, as a captain recalls.
The England wicketkeeper fired off a timely reminder that he can bat a little too
After Stokes left for 103 to end a score of 173, Foakes took over parenting duties for the remainder of the innings. He took consecutive fours from Rabada to go to 80 – arguably his first shot of the innings – and hopped off the court to put Maharaj over wide center and go to 95.
When the hundred came, thanks to a back-cut rushing to the boundary below Old Trafford’s giant red tip, the bowler was none other than Nortje, whose lugging back to his target was now more of a hound than a raging bull.
By the time Jack Leach fell for 11, Foakes had overseen the addition of 95 since the Stokes’ departure, allowing his captain to declare and bring in nine against the South African batsmen.
Not since Alec Stewart, Foakes’ cricket director in Surrey, scored a century here against Sri Lanka in 2002, has a wicketkeeper had a Test hundred in Manchester.
A few years ago Stewart called Foakes the best wicketkeeper in the world. It was comforting to be reminded that he can bat a little too.