It has been the year for wicketkeeping debates. Finally, Joe Root offered certainty, even if it only for the next fortnight. The England captain confirmed Ben Foakes will be England’s number one keeper for the remaining two Tests against Sri Lanka. There are a number of factors.
For starters, he is rated as the best keeper in the squad. Then, there is his performance on debut at Galle to consider: affecting four dismissals with some silky glovework after registering a maiden hundred in England’s first innings to inspire a 213-run win in the first Test. Jos Buttler, one of the five wicketkeepers currently in this touring party, rated it as “probably the best debut ever in Test cricket”.
There is also the situation around Jonny Bairstow, who arrived in Sri Lanka as the man in possession. An ankle injury opener the door for Foakes and the Surrey man has sat in the main armchair, put his feet up and taken control of the remote. With all due respect to Bairstow, says Root, Foakes now has them for the remainder of the series – one which England lead 1-0.
“In these conditions, I think Ben is the best option behind the stumps,” declared Root. “Jonny is a fine keeper and what he’s done over the last couple of years has been exceptional.
“He’s pretty much been faultless and long-term see him as a focal part of the Test team. It’s a great opportunity for Ben to show is ability and I think you’ve got to reward a performance like last week.”
However, it also looks like England will go into the second Test completely unchanged, which will mean Bairstow sits out again. The England management are wary of going into a Test in hot conditions with anyone taking even the slightest niggle onto the field with them. While the Yorkshireman batted, fielded and even did a bit of keeping during the team’s training session at the ground on Monday morning, the belief internally is that extra time is needed to bring him back up to speed.
“I think he’s still a week or so off being 100%,” said Root. “He’s mad keen to get back out there and play. Seeing him pretty much close to flat out as he can be at the moment in the fielding and with his batting. It’s a good sign. For him to recover as quickly as he has from that kind of injury is testament to how hard he and the medical staff has worked to get him fit again. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Plumping for the same XI will also mean England’s spin get another outing. Unlike the lead-up to the match in Galle, there has been no rain here for the last two days and baking temperatures saw the pitch uncovered for most of the day. Root had a gander at it in the morning, 48 hours out from the toss, and noted “it’s probably a little dryer than I anticipated”.
The theory coming into this week was that the Pallekele International Stadium’s carry would require an extra seam option. Sri Lanka, for example, are considering whether to include their beanpole quick Kasun Rajitha, who featured during the ODI series. The England brains trust will take another look on Tuesday, but they may take cues from Sri Lanka’s coaching staff. They spent a decent amount of time in the afternoon analysing each patch on what would be a spinner’s ideal length.
One point of change could be the number three batsmen. Moeen Ali did the job – poorly – in the first Test, but head coach Trevor Bayliss revealed Buttler was also ready for the role had England fielded first. While there are a number who could fulfil the role – Ben Stokes and Bairstow are two who have been spoken about – Root lent his support to Buttler: “He’s got a fine game. He’s very adaptable. You saw that with the way he played in the first innings in particular. He can play a number of different styles and he can read the game very quickly and very well, which I think is a great asset to have at number three.”
As for the man himself, he is receptive to the idea, though right now is unsure if he will get the nod at first-drop. The knock mentioned by Root was one of patience: Buttler’s 38 from 72 balls formed part of a useful 51-run partnership with Foakes that wore Sri Lanka down after the top-order’s attacking work. Is he up to the challenge? “If required, yeah,” answered Buttler. Particularly outside of England.
“In this part of the world it doesn’t matter too much where you bat. I think the style of cricket very similar – probably a 90% chance of starting your innings against spin. Potentially it could be the best time to bat as well.
“Just with the style of cricket as we’ve seen it pan out – what number you bat doesn’t matter too much. Obviously in England a very different style of cricket – No. 3 is a vital position in countries like England against the new ball. Whether I’ve got the game to do that in England, I may have to improve in certain areas.”
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