Ben Foakes interview: I was gutted to miss the Ashes but there are no sour grapes

Ben Foakes of Surrey gathers the ball during Day Three of the LV= Insurance County Championship Division 1 match between Somerset and Surrey at The Cooper Associates County Ground on July 27, 2023 in Taunton, England

Foakes turns his attention to one-day cricket with Surrey this month – Getty Images/Harry Trump

Ben Foakes is looking out over the sun-drenched Oval where, on Thursday, he will turn out for Surrey in the sleepy surroundings of the MetroBank One-Day Cup against Leicestershire.

In another world, last Monday, he could have been part of the epic end to an Ashes series at this very ground. Less than 24 hours have passed since the conclusion to a Test summer for which he was overlooked and, across a long chat, there is not a hint of bitterness from Foakes. He admits to feeling gutted, thrown and even lost. But sour grapes? No.

It was in mid-May that Foakes got the call from Brendon McCullum informing him that he had been dropped to accommodate the returning Jonny Bairstow. But it had played out in slow motion for months before then.

“I’d say it was on my mind from around New Zealand,” he tells Telegraph Sport. “There had to be a decision made one way or another. I was aware of that.

“I did a pre-season media day here for Surrey, and one of the journos said ‘so, you’ve been keeping the gloves warm for Jonny’, and I thought “oh, that’s how it is! It’s not going my way”. There was always that inkling, and when I got that phone call there’s not much you can do about it.”

‘It’s just a weird head space’

Foakes has been dropped before, including for Bairstow two games after being named man of his maiden series in Sri Lanka, in early 2019.

This demotion, though, was different for a few reasons. First was a positive, in that Foakes has no complaints about England’s “really good” communication. In a call from McCullum, and another from Rob Key, he felt “respected” and supports England’s steadier approach to selection these days. They make a choice for a series, and stick by it.

“It’s the right way to do it,” says the 30-year-old. “Everyone has bad games but if you chop and change, which happened under previous regimes, no one is ever playing their best cricket.”

Another difference was tougher to swallow. Foakes had had a great year under McCullum and Ben Stokes. In nine matches (he missed three, mainly due to illness), he averaged 38.9 and kept well. But Bairstow had been England’s standard bearer last summer and, when he got injured, Harry Brook had performed brilliantly too. Foakes was squeezed out.

“The first time I got dropped, I had been man of the series, the best I’ve ever played, then got dropped two games later, but those two games went badly,” he says. “Especially at that time, if you had a couple of bad games you felt something could happen.

England's Ben Foakes (L) is congratulated by England's Ollie Robinson (R) as he celebrates reaching his century during play on day 2 of the second Test match between England and South Africa at the Old Trafford cricket ground in Manchester on August 26, 2022

Foakes was in excellent form for England last summer – Getty Images/Lindsey Parnaby

“This time I’d done well and been happy with the way I’d been playing. You feel a bit lost. You get to exactly where you want to be, your career path is going a certain way and then it takes a halt and goes a completely different direction. So it’s a bit of a sinking feeling, because you don’t really know what to do, because you can’t tell yourself you didn’t do well.

“The guys who got picked have done well too. There’s no sour grapes, it’s just a weird head space. I’ve had quite a topsy-turvy career, then you are where you want to be, performing, dropped.

“It is selection, people had a decision to make. Regardless of the way it went, I can understand the decision they reached. I am not furious. I am gutted. It’s happened before, and it’s how you deal with it. In the past it’s thrown me, and maybe this time it’s thrown me the most, because I was doing well. It’s about how you refocus and go well from it rather than letting it drain you, and suck the dedication out of you. How do I refocus? It doesn’t have to be playing for England. It might be winning Championships for Surrey, playing more T20 cricket.”

Foakes has no regrets, including falling for 35 having marshalled as England fell one run short in Wellington in February, which he believes would not have made a difference. “That is where the management are good but they are quite ruthless,” he says. “I would have loved to win that game, but don’t think it would have changed anything.

‘Watching was difficult’

Foakes stayed away from the Ashes, but watched as a keen England fan, with a unique perspective – not least that he could have been involved at the drop of a hat. He was England’s concussion sub and could even have been used as a sub wicketkeeper if Bairstow had picked up another injury.

“I found that quite tricky,” he said. “But watching it was class, it was so entertaining. Everyone was gripped by it.

“Watching was difficult, but I’ve spent the majority of my career watching, from the outside looking in. The last year was the first time I’d felt like an England player, rather than a county player occasionally coming in, and feeling like you playing your last game at any time. That was the first time that I felt part of a team, from a backing point of view. So without feeling anything to do with it, you do feel a part of it. You have played with them all, know what they are going through, want them to do well. Didn’t win unfortunately, but what it’s done has been great for the country.”

One final difference was that this is the Ashes, and would have been Foakes’s first.

“Everyone is desperate to play the Ashes,” he says. “It does seem to grip the country, unlike any other series. You get remembered for what you do in the Ashes. Guys who do well in this forge their names, it would have been nice to do that, but it is what it is.”

Ben Foakes looks on during play on day three of the second cricket test between England and New Zealand at the Basin Reserve in Wellington

Foakes started to feel the pressure of the impending selection decision during England’s winter tour to New Zealand – AP/Andrew Cornaga

That is reflected in the response. Foakes staunchly avoids all forms of media, both social and more traditional, but Surrey team-mates had mentioned the groundswell of support he received before and during the series, and he was stopped a few times on the street by supporters keen for him to play.

“I don’t personally see the benefit,” he says of reading good or bad press. “Play my best cricket when I’m clear-minded, not up not down. If there’s good things being said it can be a distraction, same with bad things. The hardest part of playing international sport is that extra stuff. When I was younger I read stuff, and I was being told weaknesses that I considered my strengths. And then get told strengths that I considered my weaknesses.”

Whether he was aware or not, the noise rose whenever Bairstow was dismissed, or missed a chance, but Foakes knew a call would only come because of injury. You sense, too, that he wishes the debate around wicketkeepers was a little less polarised. He does not see the modern debate as being like his mentor Alec Stewart against Jack Russell in the 1990s, and his respect for Bairstow is obvious.

“There’s always debates about keepers in England, because there’s only one spot and a difficult decision,” he says. “It always splits opinions. When someone does well it settles, but then can rear its head. If you are in the position you know it will pop up.

“I don’t know if I see it like Stewie v Jack. Stewie was a really good keeper and a gun batter. Jack Russell was this elite keeper, next level, whose batting record wasn’t as strong. I don’t see myself in that debate, I’m more somewhere in the middle. I don’t see my self as someone who keeps but doesn’t bat much. I’m a medium. The chat is always ‘you are that guy or that guy’. I wouldn’t say I see myself in either mould, but that’s the comparison.”

‘I’m going to try to whack it’

Foakes is still in the process of picking himself up. “Venting” to his partner has helped, as has a new arrival, golden retriever Ralph, and a break to Florence and Bologna. So, too, the fact that he is chasing a third County Championship with Surrey.

He does, though, want to “evolve” his batting. In February, Foakes said “I’m not, as you’d say, Bazball”, but he is happy with the progress he made expanding his game with England – from being a straight county middle order bat to a more proactive No 7, working with the tail – even if it was not enough to keep him in the team.

That process will continue, when he plays regular white-ball cricket for the first time in years (perhaps with an eye on franchise cricket) this month, even in a one-day cup that he and many others describe as “devalued” and in the off-season, too. Having taken the “unorthodox route and put all my eggs in one basket, red-ball cricket”, the white-ball game does have its appeal.

Ben Foakes of England attempts to catch a ball during an England Test squad training session before the second Test against New Zealand at Basin Reserve on February 22, 2023 in Wellington, New Zealand

Foakes is recognised as perhaps the best wicketkeeper in world cricket – Getty Images/Philip Brown

“If I fully invest in red ball and you don’t get in the team, you are left in the lurch a bit,” he says. “So I will probably use that period later this year to try to whack it.”

Still, he does not feel at all “done” with England, even if he is yet to have a conversation with them about his international future; it would be a huge surprise if he is not on the tour of India in January.

For now, though, he will do what he has always done: quietly get on with his game.

“I am not someone to try to show people, and be that guy,” he said. “I play my best when I’m really zoned in, process driven. I’ll just be trying to find my best cricket and block everything else out, and try to win the Championship. That’s a great distraction.”

You might also like...