They gave Chris Read an honour guard the week before last, and a standing ovation too. He still has two more games to play, but they’re both away, one at Northampton and the other at Hove. So this particular innings, against Worcestershire, was his last at Trent Bridge, which has been his home ground for 19 years now. Typically, Read didn’t much care for the fanfare: “Does anyone?” he asked afterwards. “I was just desperate not to get out first ball, I’d have felt a right prat.” In the end he made a breezy 38, an innings which you can picture in your mind even if you weren’t there to see it, all jackrabbit singles and clipped cover drives. Then he was out LBW, to Ed Barnard, who wasn’t even born when Read made his List A debut.
A week later, James Foster got an ovation, too, after Essex won the County Championship for the first time in 25 years. Unlike Read, Foster hasn’t yet said he’s quitting county cricket, but it sounds like he might do. His contract is up this season. Essex have offered him a one-year extension, but, like Read, he already started out on his second career as a coach and according to reports, he thinks this might be a good time to go. He’s one step behind Read then, just as he was back in 2000, when the two were a couple of kids jockeying to replace Alec Stewart, England’s Methuselahan wicketkeeper, in the Test team.
Read and Foster were both precociously talented. Read hadn’t even played a first-class game when he was picked for England’s A team. Foster, a couple of years younger, had played four when he was called up for the A tour of the West Indies while he was still studying at Durham University. By then, Read had already made his Test debut. He played in the summer of ’99, during that sorry series against New Zealand when England slipped to the bottom of the world rankings and their new captain, Nasser Hussain, was booed as he stood on the balcony at the Oval. Which makes Read the last man still playing in first-class cricket who played Test cricket for England in the 90s.
Read kept well, but not well enough to make everyone forget about his embarrassing dismissal by Chris Cairns, who bamboozled him with a slower ball that Read, thinking it was a beamer, tried to duck under as it dipped and it slipped between his legs to bowl him. Stewart took over again, ‘till he decided to skip England’s tour of India at the end of 2001. Which is when Foster was called up. He played a series of gritty innings, 40 in three hours in a draw at Ahmedabad, 48 in three more in a draw at Bengaluru. He also became the only man in history to stump Sachin Tendulkar in a Test.
In the end, Read and Foster won fewer caps between the two of them than Geraint Jones did on his own. This even though Rod Marsh was adamant that Read was the best English wicketkeeper since Alan Knott, and that Stewart himself, once he’d finally retired, said Foster was the best ‘keeper in the world at standing up to the stumps. It was their misfortune to be playing in the after-Gilchrist era, when a ‘keeper wasn’t only expected to be able to bat, but had to be able to do it so well that he could change a game too. But more than that, they both suffered from the vagaries of fate. For men who held almost everything, it seemed the one thing they couldn’t catch was a lucky break.
On Foster’s first day back on the circuit after that winter tour, he loaned his arm guard to his team-mate Andy Clarke, who lost it, apologised, and then promptly broke Foster’s unprotected arm with a short ball in the nets. So Foster lost his place in the team. He played one Test in Australia that winter, when Stewart was injured, and that was that. At least until he was called up to for the World T20 team in 2009, when England decided to pick that odd squad of grizzled county specialists which lost to the Netherlands at Lord’s, Foster’s key contribution to the tournament a brilliant stumping to dismiss Yuvraj Singh in the game against India.