Foakes finished unbeaten on 113 on day two against South Africa at Old Trafford, as the hosts declared on 415 for 9 to establish a first-innings lead of 264. While it was by no means the kind of aggressive innings we have become used to under Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum, the Surrey wicketkeeper reaching three figures from 206 deliveries, it was a vital contribution when England needed it most.
It was an especially helpful knock alongside Stokes, who scored 103, as the pair put on 173 for the sixth wicket. Having come in on 147 for 5, still trailing the Proteas by four, the absorption of pressure and the subsequent accumulation of runs, which sped up when Foakes was batting with the tail, was a nod to a lot of introspection and hard work paying dividends for the 29-year-old.
His first century came in his first innings in this format, back in November 2018 in Sri Lanka. Since then, he has established himself as a reliable No. 5 for Surrey: seven of his now 13 first-class hundreds have come for the county – he began his career at Essex, for whom he has three – at an average of 43. While he struggled at first to truly get to grips with batting lower for England, and adopting an altogether different mindset, this was a sizeable step in the right direction.
“It’s a different role, at Surrey I just bat five and just play,” Foakes said. “When you get on quite challenging wickets batting at seven, obviously there’s a good chance you lose wickets quickly and you have to play a different way. I think for me it’s learning how to do that as well as I can. Just because it’s not my natural game. Finding a way to be able to, quite early on in my innings, put pressure back on the bowler rather than just batting.
“When I bat at five hundreds are definitely something I think about, but at seven I think more about just trying to contribute because obviously you’re not going to get as many opportunities to get a hundred. If I can get 40 with the tail and dominate that partnership, that’s my job. Getting a big partnership here and getting a century definitely gives me some confidence going forward.”
There was palpable relief at getting another significant score on the board 14 Tests and four years later, not just with the celebration of fist pumps to himself before receiving a warm embrace from his partner at the time, Ollie Robinson, and the appreciation of a packed out Emirates Old Trafford.
Since his debut, Foakes was either thrust in and out on a whim or missed out through injury, as happened at the start of 2021 when he tore his hamstring. Then, during the Headingley Test against New Zealand earlier this summer, a bout of Covid-19 ruled him out of the second-half of the match and the next Test against India. Twin failures at Lord’s (6 and 0) heaped more misery on him, but he has come out the other side in impressive fashion. An average of 26.91 coming into this match has already improved to 31.82 thanks to the red ink.
“I just felt awful in that game [Headingley],” he said. “Getting the opportunity of being number one and then pretty soon after getting something like that is very frustrating, I’ve had a bit of stuff going on since I first played but I’m used to little setbacks like that
“To be honest, in my first 10 games I was kind of looking and thinking ‘jeez how hard is Test cricket’. The West Indies tour [in 2019], the wickets out there – and then I came in for those three in India [last year] and it was obviously crazy to bat on and I guess this is a different role as well.
“I think it’s just that I’ve been a little bit out of touch,” he said of his performance at Lord’s last week. “I haven’t been lining it up as well as I’d like in the last couple of Championship games and then in the first one at Lord’s. So for me it was just working out how to do that better. That’s what I worked on between these two games. And I felt like I did line it up better and play better.
“Because it’s not my natural game, it’s just trying to work out how to play best. And I think sometimes I haven’t got the balance right because I’m not an explosive batter. If I’m trying to get the score up I can start pushing at the ball and things like that and playing at balls I shouldn’t be. It’s been really clear, obviously practising in a different way for that role, but also being really clear when I am just going to bat or when I have to push the button… how I’m going to do it. Don’t just throw my bat outside off stump. I’m happy to get out if I’m doing this or this, but not just giving it away.”
Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor for ESPNcricinfo