The catcher with a wry smile at last

Who's who for 2002: James Foster: Keeper of the faith
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The Independent Online

Nasser Hussain already speculates about the number of runs James Foster will score in three Tests in New Zealand. He might not get many, says England's captain in his diary, "but he'll get there in the long run". He would not have sounded so sanguine after the First Test against India at Mohali, where Foster batted and kept wicket like a novice.

Foster looked like a selectors' nightmare, but Hussain and Duncan Fletcher had faith in their judgement. It was rewarded by Foster with good scores when they were badly needed in the next two Tests (40 at Ahmedabad, 48 at Bangalore). His keeping improved so fast that by the last day's play at Bangalore, Mike Brearley observed that a diving take down the leg side reminded him of Alan Knott.

Back to Hussain: "It goes to show that if you have the mind and the willingness to learn then you can work on the ability. In other words, pick on character." The legendary Knott was 22 on his debut, a year older than Foster, and he went on to play 95 Tests. It may be premature, but Foster seems capable of challenging that record.

Only a year ago Foster was about to go to the West Indies with the England A team, and that had seemed improbable too. At the start of the 2000 season he had been playing for Durham University and struggling with both his batting and keeping. But Graeme Fowler, the former Lancashire and England opening bat who was his coach, did not lose faith either. He told Foster he would be playing first-class cricket for Essex before the summer was out.

"I said, 'Shut up, Foxy, you're taking the piss'." But Foster played three matches for Essex at the end of the season and the word of mouth was good enough to get him a place in the A team.

Foster is a prodigy, but he has been used to that for some time now. He played tennis for Great Britain's Under-14 team, and thought that was where his future lay. But by 17 he had decided that if he was going to be a professional sportsman, he would rather be a cricketer. Essex gave him a contract in his gap year between school and university, and he made his first appearances in the second team. His role model was Robert Rollins, the Essex keeper.

When he played for Durham University, Fowler dropped his name into conversations with coaches and journalists, but even he must have been surprised by the ease of Foster's promotion to the one-day squad in Zimbabwe last September and into the Test team in India. His debut was so awful that it will never be forgotten. He was more nervous than ever before and felt sick for the whole time. He dropped two catches and was out in a humiliating way: "I could see myself playing a slog sweep and I said to myself, 'Why are you doing this? You don't even play the slog sweep'."

He did not read his reviews, though a couple of text messages let him know that they were not flattering. Hussain took him aside and said that it was only a game of cricket; the sun would shine the next day. Duncan Fletcher worked hard with him in the nets, and, back on the field at Ahmedabad, his colleagues in the slips made him relax. He started to talk to the bowlers; he ran hard between the wickets at the end of an over; he learned about playing spin from watching Rahul Dravid; and his concentration returned.

"You always improve your technique but, when you've got the basics, concentration is the factor. You've got to be very fit." And he became known to his new mates as Fossie. "I'm a very lucky lad," he says. "People think I don't appreciate it and they're sadly mistaken." For his age, he is well off too, though his father, a former financial adviser, sees to it that he does nothing rash. He has splashed out on a car, however. James Foster, England keeper, has never had one of his own before.