England’s Foakes-Bairstow debate could be over – and there are five reasons why

Phil Salt keeping wicket for Lancashire
England white-ball opener Phil Salt has designs on taking the gloves in Tests - Michael Steele/Getty Images

Brendon McCullum acknowledged on Sunday that England’s Test team will enter a new phase under his and Ben Stokes’s leadership when they next play, against West Indies in July.

Much is up for debate: who will be their first-choice spinner? Which of the many contracted seamers will make Test debuts? But, with Harry Brook seemingly certain to return at No 5 after missing the tour of India for personal reasons, the question of who will keep wicket is perhaps most pressing.

Ben Foakes and Jonny Bairstow have shared the gloves since McCullum and Ben Stokes took charge in 2022. Bairstow was first-choice at home last summer due to his batting prowess, before Foakes’s better keeping saw him take over in India.

But both men had inconclusive tours. Bairstow did not reach 40, while Foakes kept brilliantly, but struggled with the bat, especially when left with the tail, a part of the No 7’s role that England see as vital.

When asked about who would take the gloves in the summer, McCullum was non-committal. Clearly, both Foakes and Bairstow still have very strong cases, but the sense is the guarantee of a duopoly has ended.

Here are five alternative options:

Ollie Robinson

Durham, 25
First-class record 65 matches, 35.13 average

Out with one Kent-born Ollie Robinson born on December 1 (1993), and in with another Kent-born Ollie Robinson born on December 1 (1998)? Possibly.

Robinson has a strong first-class record, averaging 35 for Kent and now Durham. He is technically classical, but scores quickly, and keeps very tidily indeed. He was first-choice for the Lions this winter, but insiders have suggested that perhaps he did not further his case as much as expected and could do with another season of full county action, which he only got for the first time after moving north last year.

Ollie Robinson
Ollie Robinson has flourished since leaving Kent, where he was behind the then captain Sam Billings, for Durham - Stu Forster/Getty Images

In India, registered three first innings ducks in three matches, but recovered well in the second. That said, he has a crucial advantage in the early part of the season, in that he will be playing with Ben Stokes at county level.

Jamie Smith

Surrey, 23
First-class record 50 matches, 39.38 average
England record Two ODIs, 9 average

Some have said that so high is Smith’s ceiling that he needs to make a decision promptly over whether he wants to be a long-term middle order lynchpin, or long-term keeper-bat. Indecision has not helped Bairstow especially.

Jamie Smith hits out
Jamie Smith made 736 runs at 41 as Surrey won their second successive title - Alex Davidson/Getty Images for Surrey CCC

This winter, Smith – after consulting with England – opted to play white-ball cricket on the franchise circuit, rather than go on another Lions tour. He was one of the stars of Surrey’s Championship title win, and will be nestled in their middle-order again this year, without the gloves (which belong to Foakes). He is a powerful ball-striker and is tall for a keeper, like Foakes. Could England really pick a wicketkeeper who was not doing the job regularly for their county? This management probably would.

James Rew

Somerset, 20
First-class record 25 matches, 45.11 average

Too soon, in all likelihood. Rew turned 20 only in January and, although he had a ludicrous year last season – scoring five hundreds by mid-summer – he could do with more time learning his craft. Robinson took the gloves on the Lions tour, but Rew came in at No 4, a measure of how highly his batting is regarded. However, he had a quiet trip, with just one score of more than 22 in six innings. Very much one for the future, though, and a good start to the season for Somerset, keeping to a high-class pace attack and an England spinner, could push him into the conversation.

James Rew
James Rew needs to start the season with a bang after a lean Lions tour with the bat - Harry Trump/Getty Images

Phil Salt

Lancashire, 27
First-class record 52 matches, 33.52 average
England record 19 ODIs, 36.41 average; 21 T20Is, average 35.50

The regularity with which Salt is seen biffing a white-ball at the top of the order in some league or another might make this look left-field, but well-placed insiders believe England like what they see of him as a keeper-bat down the order. It makes some sense: his keeping is adequate, and he strikes a long ball, which is Foakes’s biggest problem when batting with the tail. Salt’s first-class record is solid, whether at the top of the order, or more recently as a keeper-bat since moving to Lancashire.

Salt is on record saying that he does not see himself as a white-ball specialist. “The way that the Test team’s playing at the moment, I do see myself fitting in there somewhere in the future,” he said in September. Watch this space.

There is one catch: he will be at the Indian Premier League in early summer, while his rivals – Bairstow excepted – are playing in the Championship.

Ollie Pope

Surrey, 26
First-class record 95 matches, average 49.03
England record 43 Test matches, average 34.04

Really? It might not be so mad. England are very keen on Pope, and he is their vice-captain. While, on the whole, his record at No 3 is good, his form in India nose-dived and has been a little patchy overall. Could they decide to end the experiment, but keep him in the team this way, in a more natural slot further down the order?

Ollie Pope takes a catch during England's tour of Pakistan
Ollie Pope has done the job competently before - REUTERS/Tanveer Shahzad

Probably not is the answer, but Pope has kept for England before, three times, in New Zealand in 2019 and twice in Pakistan in 2022 when Foakes was ill then not immediately recalled. On all three occasions he kept more than serviceably.

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