“I think if you look at it collectively, I’d argue that this is probably the strongest wicketkeeping generation,” says Billings, one of 11 men with experience of keeping wicket to have been included in England or England Lions squads in the last 12 months.
Jonny Bairstow kept through last summer’s Ashes series; Jos Buttler – and Ollie Pope, out of necessity – took the reins for the two-Test contest in New Zealand; Billings donned the gloves during five T20I matches on that tour; Foakes was man of the series in Sri Lanka in 2018 and was on the return trip that was curtailed by the coronavirus outbreak in March.
Four more were part of England Lions’ landmark, unbeaten winter in Australia. James Bracey kept in five out of six games, with Robinson taking over for the final match. Moores’ injury opened the door for Cox to join the group as a replacement, while Tom Banton – part of England’s winter white-ball legs – and Ben Duckett, who opened the batting in a T20I against Pakistan last year, have both performed the role at county level.
The depth of competition evokes some considerable candour. Do you stand a chance? Is there really a way past the guys at the top? What can you do to reach that level?
“I thought I was miles away from the setup and I was kind of resigned to the fact that I probably wouldn’t be ever involved in one,” Cox reflects of his winter Lions experieince – a maiden call-up on his 28th birthday, 10 years after his first-class debut. “It has come at the perfect time in my career. I’m desperate to be back there.”
He pinpoints a quote from former England coach Trevor Bayliss, who in 2016 said: “I think the best wicketkeeper should be the wicketkeeper.” It was a lightbulb moment for Cox: “That went around the circuit and put all the keepers on alert,” he recalls. “It was like: ‘Oh, we actually do stand a chance.’”
Foakes’ subsequent selection two years later against Sri Lanka – where the emphasis was placed on glovework against spin – reaffirmed the point. It came six winters after he had first been part of an England Lions squad as a 19-year-old, before he had even played a List A game.
“In terms of competition, it’s really strong,” Foakes acknowledges with an unfailing respect and admiration for his fellow keepers. “It is tricky to get everyone in at the same time. But nowadays with the batting and keeping, there’s such a dilemma with that – where you fit in, what you push harder on. It’s a complex time for a keeper-batter.”
He admits that he struggled in the aftermath of losing his spot following England’s tour of the West Indies at the start of 2019. He began with a hundred on debut in Galle and added a half-century in Pallekele. In five games, he averages 41.50 with the bat at Test level.
“It’s obviously very difficult,” he adds. “For me, I’d done six years on the Lions working all summer and all winter trying to get to the eventual goal of playing for England. And then, I guess once you get there, you don’t know what’s going to happen.
“For me, for it to go really well and get the man of the series in the first series, I guess you do expect more of a run. Two games later, for it to be gone – in terms of the mental side of it – that’s something that’s quite tricky to deal with.”
His efforts last time out in Sri Lanka, however, played a part in his recall for the subsequent series in March. He is well aware that a batting average last summer of 24.58 hardly constituted a battering down of the door, but he knows also that his struggles stemmed from his own mental fatigue.
“Statistically, you don’t pick someone for an England tour on the back of what I did last year, so from that point of view I was surprised,” he reflects.
“But at the same time, I knew it wasn’t that I’d had a bad year because I wasn’t playing well. I knew that if I came back after a break, I felt like I could do a hell of a lot better.”
It is worth noting too, of course, that from 2015 through to 2018 in first-class cricket, Foakes averaged: 51.41, 44, 49.47 and 36.70. Understandably, it has been a source of frustration in the past that he has so often been labelled purely as a wicketkeeper.
“I guess on last year, you’d say I’m a keeper. But the years before, I’ve had the numbers of a batsman. I think if you can average mid-40s for a few years, I feel it is unfair to be put as a keeper that bats a little bit.”
Perception, you see, is key among all this. It is a word Foakes returns to at several junctures.
“For example,” he starts, “with Sri Lanka it’s perceived that you need your best gloveman and you sacrifice the runs, so regardless of how you’ve performed, you kind of get a go. Whereas, in other countries, it’s perceived that the keeper isn’t as important so the runs outweigh it.”
He points to Foster’s call-up for the 2009 World T20 and Peter Nevill’s period behind the stumps for Australia. He is humbled by the suggestion of many observers that he is the standout pure wicketkeeper on the circuit, but it is praise that comes with its own drawbacks, linked once again to perception. By the time Foster and Read retired, they had recorded 50 first-class centuries between them at a combined average above 37; and yet, it was always their keeping that came in for commendation.
“I think it can almost weigh against you,” Foakes explains. “Some guys who are seen as really good batters that can keep as well, even if they develop their keeping immensely and are actually really good keepers, the second you drop one, you’re seen as: ‘Ah, he’s not a great keeper, but he can bat though.’
“It’s almost like, if a good keeper drops one, it’s like: ‘You rarely see that,’ whereas if a guy that’s seen as a batter that keeps drops one, he may drop less – you never know, but it’s seen as: ‘Ah, he’s dropped another one.’ It’s such a fine thing of how you’re perceived.
“When everyone kept on saying: ‘Good keeper, can’t do it with the bat’, that was one thing that annoyed me just purely because statistically there’s no evidence of that. That was one thing that frustrated me.”