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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

The only way was Essex for Test debut centurions Ben Foakes and Tom Blundell

Strange turn of events has seen Colchester and East Essex Cricket Club in England help produce two Test stars for two different nations - and they even played in the same team

When it comes to producing wicketkeeper-batsmen capable of scoring a century on Test debut, you need to look no further than a club side in England.

Founded in 1862, Colchester and East Essex has for many years had a reputation as a breeding ground for players good enough to make a career in the domestic game with county side Essex.

But after the performance of Ben Foakes for England in the first Test against Sri Lanka at Galle, in which he struck a sparkling 107, the club can now lay claim to another success.

Foakes, you see, isn't the first to have played for Colchester in recent years and go on and represent his country with acclaim.

Back in 2012 he was joined in their Shepherd Neame Essex League Premier Division team by Tom Blundell. The New Zealander just happens to have been the last international wicketkeeper to score a century on his Test debut, against the West Indies in 2017. He was also the first Kiwi to do so.

Foakes, 25, had been on the cusp of England selection for the past couple of years after solid performances for Surrey. Blundell meanwhile added a second Test appearance and has played three T20 Internationals. He came to Colchester as an overseas player from Wellington.

Those who saw the pair up close during the early years of their career in England saw their potential - but did they expect this level of success?

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Andrew Kennedy has been involved at Colchester for 33 years as a player, club captain and now chairman and is also on the General Committee at Essex, the county side of past England captains such as Alastair Cook, Nasser Hussain, Graham Gooch and Keith Fletcher.

He said Foakes always looked a "class above" and and his maturity stood out, especially as a teenager.

"He has the best hands I have seen on a keeper. I always thought he would become a pro but with the current crop of keepers I thought it might be some time before he got a go with England - but everything lined up and he took his chance."

Kennedy told how Blundell, 28, came to England as a batsman who bowled off-spin, but left a couple of years later as a wicketkeeper.

"He scored pretty heavily but not to the extent as Ben and was only just developing his keeping skills at that point. Tom was very quiet at the time but I met him In India last year and he is a confident outgoing guy now and really laid back and down to earth."

New Zealand's Tom Blundell celebrates 100 runs during day three of the first Test cricket match between New Zealand and the West Indies at the Basin Reserve in Wellington on December 3, 2017. (Photo by Marty MELVILLE / AFP) / “The erroneous mention[s] appearing in the metadata of this photo by Marty MELVILLE has been modified in AFP systems in the following manner: [Tom Blundell] instead of [Tom Blunder]. Please immediately remove the erroneous mention[s] from all your online services and delete it (them) from your servers. If you have been authorized by AFP to distribute it (them) to third parties, please ensure that the same actions are carried out by them. Failure to promptly comply with these instructions will entail liability on your part for any continued or post notification usage. Therefore we thank you very much for all your attention and prompt action. We are sorry for the inconvenience this notification may cause and remain at your disposal for any further information you may require.”
New Zealand's Tom Blundell celebrates his century during day three of the first Test against the West Indies at the Basin Reserve in Wellington on December 3, 2017. AFP

Another to witness both Foakes and Blundell at close quarters was opening bowler Ben Stephens, who is also executive director of the Root Academy which is linked to the England captain, Joe Root.

He said both were quite raw when they first started playing for Colchester but they clearly had exceptional natural talent which was paired with a ferocious appetite for training.

"I spent a lot of time training with them and their work ethic was unbelievable," he said. "Foakes would be at a training session all day with Essex and would then message me saying he wants to come to the ground for a club session. Blundell as well would train and train and train, hit balls, catch ball after ball. We'd just played Saturday and Sunday and were shattered and then on Monday morning he'd be trying to get me to go training again.

"Foakes was sent to us from neighbouring club Frinton to play a better standard and he immediately shone. There was one innings I clearly remember against London side Wanstead - he scored 120 or 130 and it was unbelievable to watch. There was one six he hit which went straight over the pavilion off Maurice Chambers [155 First Class wickets for Northamptonshire and Essex] and plugged in the green behind. I remember it because I had to go and fetch it!"

"Foakes was the more carefree of the two, while Blundell was totally focused and wouldn't let anything get in his way. There was a match when Foakes was dismissed quite early and was given a big send off by the opposition. His response was something along the lines of 'it's only a game'. For someone who was trying to make it as a professional I thought it was a big comment to make. Having said that, he had another innings to come soon after. He was good fun."

As well as Foakes and Blundell, Colchester at the time were graced with the talents of Graham Napier, who was signed by Mumbai Indians in the Indian Premier League, and Reece Topley, who has played one-day cricket for England.

But for Stephens, Foakes and Blundell were the two best he has come across at club level.

"I can't think of anyone who tops these two in terms of quality players from those I've played with and against, and that includes England international Tom Westley. There was another occasion when I was batting with Foakes in a cup match and there were just a few overs to go. He was on around 60 not out at this stage and he was knocking it wherever he wanted on that pitch. He was telling me what he was going to do, how he was going to do it and then delivered it."

The last England player to score a century on Test debut was Keaton Jennings against India in 2016. He was followed by Blundell in 2017, then Kevin O'Brien struck 118 for Ireland against Pakistan in May and India's Prithvi Shaw hit 134 against the West Indies last month.

Foakes became only the fifth keeper in Test history to score a century on debut and second for England after Matt Prior. He is the first England wicketkeeper to score a century in Sri Lanka.