Peter Hayter talks to Essex wicketkeeper James Foster about the way his England hopes were crushed
Seven years have passed since the moment James Foster realised his dream of a long and successful career as England’s wicket-keeper was never going to come true after all.
Fortunately for him, he came to terms with that understanding long ago, but a sharp intake of breath just as he starts to talk about it betrays how much it hurt at the time.
The work of the Essex gloveman when standing up to the stumps in the 2009 World Twenty20, and the memorable stumping of Yuvraj Singh in particular, had been among the few bright sparks in an otherwise dismal England performance.
But, after having enjoyed his first involvement with the national side in the six years since his international career had come to what most assumed was a temporary halt back in 2003, Foster found his name missing from England’s plans, not only for Andy Flower’s 2009 Ashes squad but also the Lions, and that is where it has stayed ever since.
“That was the time when I understood that I was not going to get another go,” says Foster.
“I was 29, there was a crop of talented younger players coming through, and, in terms of my belief in getting another chance with England, I thought, ‘that’s probably me done now’. He was right.
The England career of the former Forest schoolboy and graduate of Durham University had started in 2001, when, at the age of 21 and with one season of first-class cricket behind him, he was already being touted as the long-term successor to Alec Stewart.
Now, to the continuing astonishment of those who believe Foster has been, consistently, the best wicket-keeper in the country for a decade, it was effectively over after just seven Tests.
“That was tough,” Foster recalls. “I remember going into 2010, on the club’s pre-season tour to West Indies, in Barbados, thinking: ‘Well, why am I still playing?’ Then, half-way through the summer Mark Pettini stood down as Essex captain and I thought here is something to get my teeth into.”
The 36-year-old may no longer be leading the side, but listening to him during their Championship match against Worcestershire at New Road, talking of their excellent start to the season, of his ambitions for the club and for himself as he plans for a post-playing career in coaching (he is grateful to Forest School for the chance of work there in the winter months), there is no doubting the fire still burns and the future is bright.
As for the past and as for England, time has enabled Foster to put things in perspective and he is disarmingly honest about what was and what might have been.
He would not be human if disappointment that he was not given sufficient opportunities to lay claim to a permanent place did not surface from time to time.
But bitterness is nowhere to be heard.
“I’m very much at peace with things,” he insists.” I wish I’d played a lot more for England but I don’t sit here, or go back to my hotel room after play and brood. You move on.
“People ask me whether I think I had a fair crack of the whip, and whether I did or not is irrelevant. It is what it is, one of those things.
“In cricket, as in life, you get some winners and some losers, some who just don’t quite make it or get that further opportunity.
“Should I have done anything differently? I was desperate to have an England career. Maybe I was too desperate.
“Perhaps if I’d wanted it a bit less…?
“Maybe it was timing, when there was an opportunity to go on tour or when I was the next bloke in line, I wasn’t in good enough form. Other keepers were tried, like Chris Read, Geraint Jones and Tim Ambrose, then Matt Prior, second time around, took his chance.
“Maybe it would have been better if I hadn’t been picked so early and so young, but you are not going to say ‘sorry, I’m not interested. Come back in a few years when I’m ready’.
“The advantage was that I was very raw, but I think back to how I played and where I was with my batting and keeping and I was miles away from where I am now, or even where I was three years afterwards.
“But then again, others have been thrown in in similar circumstances, taken the opportunity and had success.
“Perhaps I should have trusted my methods a bit more. Perhaps, when I wasn’t batting so well, instead of analysing and thinking there were major technical issues, I had had more faith in my way of batting and accepted the bad with the good a bit more, instead of trying to play a way I thought the coaches wanted me to play, who knows?
“I do wish my career had panned out better, without a shadow of a doubt, in terms of playing matches for England and winning matches for England.
“But I count myself fortunate to have played at all. I still remember the feeling of being in the dressing room after my one Test win, against New Zealand in Christchurch. I’ll never forget it.”
Many believe one of the reasons why, as time progressed, Foster was so often overlooked was that, from the moment Jack Russell departed the scene, England turned away from the old principle of picking your best keeper first and treating his runs as a bonus.
Indeed, some see the fact that the two contenders for the role in the current set-up are Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler as one of England’s more obvious weaknesses.
“I actually thought my batting was ok, but whether he is the cleanest hitter or an accumulator, you do need your keeper to have the mindset that he can make a Test hundred.
“Ideally he would get in the team as a batsman in his own right. When what some term a non-specialist keeper drops a catch that ends up costing runs, it is replayed and replayed and people say ‘oh, if only so-and-so was keeping wicket.
“Specialist keepers drop catches as well, but when they do it is just not highlighted so much.”
Yet, as well as all the other issues that must be taken into account when reviewing Foster’s England experience, the story would not be complete without some mention of pure, simple, rank bad luck.
Back in 2002, on his return from his first winter assignments in Zimbabwe, India and New Zealand, as Stewart’s replacement, Foster was considered a decent chance to retain his place for the first series of the summer, against Sri Lanka, despite the veteran Surrey star being available after elbow surgery.
Certainly, the selectors had a decision to make, until fortune made it for them.
Foster takes up the tale: “When I got back from New Zealand I had a couple of weeks off. Andy Clarke, who was on the Essex staff at the time, asked me if he could borrow my arm guard while I was away and I said, ‘Ok, mate. Just whack it in my bag when you’re done with it’.
“On my first day back, after having done my keeping drills, I was getting my pads on for a net when I realised my arm guard wasn’t in my bag. Clarkey apologised and said he’d left it in the dressing room and I said don’t worry about it, I’ll have a bat without it.
“So he banged one in, I ducked, the ball didn’t get up and smashed into my arm where the guard would have been, and broke it.
“Funny old game.”
Then, when he did get another chance, in the fourth Test of the 2002-03 Ashes tour at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, deputising for the injured Stewart, Foster was denied the catch that never was.
Needing 107 to win in their second innings, Australia were rocking on 58-3 when their captain Steve Waugh came to the crease suffering from a migraine and nicked his second ball, off Steve Harmison, to Foster behind the stumps for his third such dismissal in quick succession.
Except…“I remember catching it and going to throw it up,” Foster recalls. “And no one moved. Mark Butcher was in the slips and he said ‘I don’t know’ and then, when we watched it on the big screen I put in a token appeal, but it was far too late and the game just carried on.”
That was Foster’s last Test match for England. Good job he’s kept his sense of humour.
This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, Friday May 6 2016