Surrey wicketkeeper Foakes had planned for a rare winter at home after missing out on the 16-man squad but joined up as cover when regular gloveman Jonny Bairstow suffered an ankle injury during the recent one-day series.
England’s initial instincts were to hand the gloves to white-ball keeper Jos Buttler but took a late swerve towards the 25-year-old, a decision that is already paying dividends before he has even had a chance to stand up to the stumps.
Coming in after a flaky top-order performance left the tourists 103-5 in Galle, Foakes put together an assured, assiduous 87 not out to anchor an innings of 321-8.
Against a rotating cast of spinners and the doughty Suranga Lakmal he gave his team a much-needed backbone and showcased both the technique and the judgement to succeed at the highest level.
All the more surprising, then, that he was caught off-guard by his own selection.
“I only found out yesterday during training when Rooty (Joe Root) came to tell me. I was quite shocked to be fair,” he said.
“It was a whirlwind. I didn’t think I’d be playing. I was a little surprised but it was a proud moment. I had a lot of emotions this morning but to get out there and get off the mark settled me down a bit.”
Until Bairstow’s untimely tumble Foakes did not even think he would be in Sri Lanka, never mind performing in such style in front of over 8,000 fans – 6,130 inside the stadium and the remainder watching from atop the picturesque Galle Fort.
“I’d heard about Jonny’s ankle but I still wasn’t sure if I’d be coming out,” he added.
“I’d just got back from a lads’ trip to Lisbon when Ed Smith (national selector) gave me a ring... good preparation!
“I was going to have six months off, originally. I’ve had quite a few England Lions trips so it was just to kind of clear my head, get way from cricket for a little while and come back fresh. Plans change, don’t they?”
Foakes’ composed innings is not just a personal triumph, but an institutional one for the England and Wales Cricket Board. He has travelled to Sri Lanka three times with the Lions and once on a placement with Colombo-based Colts CC, learning more about the alien conditions each time.
At Colts he even played alongside Dilruwan Perera and Akila Dananjaya, two of the bowlers who failed to prise him out here.
“Obviously coming out here a few times, you get good experience,” he said. “At Colts I got to learn a little bit about Perera and Dananjaya, which was fantastic, it definitely helped. The thing you can’t really prepare for here is the heat, unless you’ve done it.”
Sri Lanka captain Dinesh Chandimal suffered a groin strain while fielding and it was unclear ahead of the start of day two whether he would be fit to bat.
“He is currently under observation and is not yet ruled out of the game,” said a spokesman for the team.
England’s top order imploded during a typically frantic morning on foreign soil, several self-inflicted wounds leaving them on the verge of collapse before Foakes turned the tide with late assistance from Sam Curran (48). England’s team was lighter on experience by 342 caps since its last outing in September - the retired Alastair Cook, the injured Bairstow and the dropped Stuart Broad replaced by first-timers in Rory Burns and Foakes and spinner Jack Leach playing in just his second Test.
Burns feathered Suranga Lakmal off his hip and into the wicketkeeper’s gloves. That brought Moeen Ali to the crease for his latest – and possibly last – attempt to paper over the problems at No 3. It lasted exactly one ball, Lakmal finding the perfect angle to zip past his defences and take out off stump.
Keaton Jennings and Joe Root rallied with a 62-run stand but their partnership hardly calmed the nerves and it was Root who buckled. Over-confident after making a fluent 35, he ran down the track towards retiring hero Rangana Herath but failed to make contact after yorking himself. That was the 40-year-old’s 100th wicket here, with firecrackers set off over the Galle Fort to toast the occasion.
By the end of the session Dilruwan Perera had rattled the stumps twice more, Jennings cramped on a backfoot cut for a battling 46 and Ben Stokes skittled attempting a messily ambitious slog-sweep. Jos Buttler went for 38 after nibbling at Perera’s armball.