Ben Foakes charting his own wicketkeeping legacy in India
ENGLAND TOUR OF INDIA 2024
Rehan Ahmed boldly proclaimed Ben Foakes as the best wicketkeeper in the world last week.
"I have never seen anyone as good as him," he had said. "I reckon he is the best keeper in the world, ever. He trains so hard. I just don't see him miss a ball. I can't even explain how good he is."
All of 19 years of age and with 16 international games under his belt, out of which only three are Tests, Rehan would easily go down as a rookie in the game and his sweeping statement can be easy to look past. But the performance from Foakes has been such that it has compelled even the experts to weigh in.
Foakes' stunning catches, snatching deliveries from under batsmen's noses during the second Test in Visakhapatnam, kindled a debate on whether he is the finest foreign wicketkeeper to have stood behind the stumps in India. The jury is still divided on the matter, with figures like Kiran More considering Jack Russell, Ian Healy, and Mark Boucher as superior travelers to this part of the world.
Yet, keeping wickets in India transcends mere skill; it is a delicate blend of art and science. Some might even argue it's more complex than rocket science itself. Boucher, hailed as the best keeper in his prime, once conceded 29 byes in a Test innings in India (Nagpur, 2010), while Aussie Brad Haddin, no slouch with the gloves, let through 39 byes in an innings (Bengaluru, 2008).
Theorists study a keeper's stance, positioning, center of gravity (COG), mobility, stability, and ability to judge the line and length of a delivery. "Ben Foakes is undoubtedly a fine wicketkeeper. His swift judgment of a delivery's trajectory is impressive. However, Russell, Healy, and Boucher were in a league of their own," opines More.
A keeper, according to More, ideally has to pick the ball before it is delivered, like Sachin Tendulkar would do while batting. Typically, a narrow stance grants greater mobility but less stability, while a wider stance offers more stability but restricts mobility - a style that seems to sit with Foakes. In Indian conditions, where the ball often keeps low, his low COG enables him to gather the ball at a lower height. Shreyas Iyer in the first innings and Rajat Patidar in the second innings of the previous Test were caught because of Faokes' low COG. Notably, he did not concede a single bye in Visakhapatnam. His counterpart, Kona Bharat, familiar with the conditions here, had given away 15 byes in the Test.
Foreign keepers visiting India often adjust their stance due to the higher bounce in their home conditions but Foakes avoids early commitment. "A wider stance limits mobility. Foakes' stance seems tailored for Indian conditions. His unorthodox positioning, with his left leg on the middle stump and a bend towards his right, enhances his effectiveness," remarks MSK Prasad, a former Indian player, who kept wickets in seven Tests.
But More says while it is challenging to keep in India, the conditions on offer in the country enable a keeper to showcase his skills. "Basically the wickets are different from centre to centre in India; you don't get the same wicket in Bangalore, Cuttack, Vizag and Mumbai. The ball on black soil wickets grips and turns but it keeps low too. There would be variable bounce on Day 3 and Day 4 of a Test. The best thing is when the ball is turning, the wicketkeeper has an opportunity to showcase his skills. I really enjoyed keeping on turning tracks. For me, keeping on flatter wickets is more difficult. Because the ball comes after one hour or 45 minutes," More comments.
So far, Foakes has thrived on the Indian tracks, earning widespread acclaim and prompting bold declarations of his prowess.
Jurel in place of Bharat?
Meanwhile, in the Indian camp, there's speculation that Bharat may have to yield his place to Dhruv Jurel in the upcoming third Test scheduled to commence on Thursday. Bharat's batting performance has largely been lacklustre in the seven Tests he has played thus far - not a single half-century to his name - although his wicketkeeping skills have been commendable.