Though Buttler as vice-captain is England’s first-choice wicketkeeper, Foakes is widely recognised as the best gloveman in a squad that also features Jonny Bairstow. The presence of the other two have limited the Surrey man’s opportunities to just five caps, picked up consecutively away from home during the winter of 2018/19.
He was still able to make a good impression: averaging 41 with 332 runs along with a supple reliability behind the stumps. Most notable was his century on debut in the 2018 tour of Sri Lanka, coming when England were teetering on 103 for five in the first innings of the opening Test. They would go on to win the match, and the series, with Foakes recognised as the standout cricketer on both sides.
At the time, Foakes’ success came at the expense of Bairstow, the man in possession of the gloves coming into the tour. An injury to Bairstow prior to that first match in Galle provided Foakes with the opportunity, though Bairstow got them back when Foakes was dropped for the last Test of that winter against West Indies.
Buttler has made no secret of his admiration of Foakes and he believes having such an accomplished rival will only push him to greater heights.
“He is a fantastic player and was man of the series last time in Sri Lanka,” said Buttler. “Someone like Foakesy is a great person to push my game on. I’ve watched him practise and he’s impressive to watch, fantastic to see how good he is. Competition for places is healthy and can drive people on and give people hunger to improve and perform.
“In all departments on this tour, there is a lot of competition. With an enlarged squad, you have to bring extra guys and you see just how good some of those guys are. It’s a great time for English cricket, there is a lot of competition for places in both red and white ball. That has always been the hallmark of good sides, good players on the fringes and good players missing out.”
To be fair, Buttler is not usually the sort who requires outside influences to spur him on. There are few harsher judges on his own game than himself, particularly when it comes to his batting over the last two years. A lean 2019, in which he averaged 25.10 with just three half-centuries across 20 innings, looked to have continued into 2020. But he found form in two Tests against Pakistan: a measured 75 helping England chase down 277 in the first Test at Emirates Old Trafford, then a 152 in the second at the Ageas Bowl.
That 152, his last Test innings, was a bit of a godsend. Prior to it, 2020’s average was a lowly 28.75 that was given a healthy lift to a more respectable 38.23. It was also just a second century of his career in the format.
Though it is a jumping-off point into the New Year, one which will likely see Buttler rested for a part of the series in India as England shuffle their pack to cope with 17 Tests, along with the rigmarole of an Ashes series, Buttler is regarding 2021 as a clean slate.
“It was a very long time ago now," he said of that 152. "It’s the start of a new year so it doesn’t count for much except it gave me a lot of confidence and hopefully I can still ride off the back of that confidence even though its a long time ago and it doesn’t count for too much. But it’s nice to be in the position where I finished the summer strongly. Also, you’ve things you’ve been working on and they work out and you get result from them. So it’s nice to get back into working on those things knowing they served me well back in England. But as I say, it’s going to be different cricket so it’s about being adaptable and drawing on parts of your game that you might not use in England making sure they’re in good order.”
Though the focus is on repeating 2018’s clean sweep in Sri Lanka across the two matches, Buttler and England are all too aware of the precarious situation at home with Covid-19. Even in their bio-secure bubble, which has now moved to Galle, the threat of the virus is no stranger. Moeen Ali tested positive and will remain in isolation until 13 January (the day before the first Test), while Chris Woakes emerged from quarantine on Saturday to train by himself in Hambantota.
Over a summer played behind-closed-doors, England players understood how fortunate they were to be playing at all and thus felt a responsibility to provide as good a distraction as possible from the day-to-day struggles endured by so many. That remains a point reinforced out in Sri Lanka as the United Kingdom endures a third lockdown that is likely to last until the end of the India series in March.
“I know it’s been such a tough time for so many people,” said Buttler. “Sport, for guys like us who take a huge interest in it, to have the football on the TV and be able to watch live sport has been a real saviour in such tough times.
“Personally, I know friends who are really looking forward to watching the matches and excited that we’re able to play cricket and it will be on TV. Sport can be a great distraction and enjoyment away from things that are tough at the moment. We are all quite aware of that and all quite aware how lucky we are to be able to even in very strange and different circumstances be able to play cricket and to be able to do what we love and put cricket on the TV for guys who love watching it at home.”
England's final day of practice in Hambantota was rained off on Saturday. Originally, they had planned to have their batsmen spend time in the middle against the spinners as they look to make the most of what little time they have between now and the first Test, which starts on Thursday. They travelled to Galle on Saturday evening and their next practice session will take place on Monday.
It has not been ideal preparation, specifically for Buttler who kept for 50 overs and then was dismissed for a golden duck by James Anderson during a Team Joe Root versus Team Jos Buttler match on Friday. Thus, Sri Lanka carry something of an edge as they come off the back of a Test series in South Africa, albeit one in which they were soundly beaten in both Tests having picked up a number of injuries. England however, last in competitive red ball action five months ago, are not looking for excuses. These are just how things are in the Covid-19 era.
"I think it is going to be difficult but it doesn’t mean it’s not attainable," said Buttler on the prospect of winning the series. "For some of the more experienced guys who’ve played quite a lot of cricket, they may be a bit more comfortable in the fact that preparation isn’t perfect. They have experiences to draw on from playing in Sri Lanka before or different phases of their career which they can draw on.
"It is different and you have to accept it’s different and it might feel day one and day two may be really strange actually, having not had a perfect preparation, but we live in a world that’s very different at the minute, the team we’re playing against have just played a series in SA and are coming back into it as well, so it’s going to be important that we are as mentally switched on as we can be. We can control those things even though we don’t have the perfect and long run-in to the matches. Physically it is going to be demanding, and that’s something we have to be ready for. Obviously coming from home and indoor schools to 30-degree heat which feels a lot hotter, playing long days of cricket is going to be tough physically. We have to be ready for that."
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