Born-winner Jonny Bairstow thrives on full house and big pressure for England

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·4-min read
Born-winner Jonny Bairstow thrives on full house and big pressure for England
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Jonny Bairstow makes no secret of the fact that he likes it when the chips are down, the pressure is on and there is a big crowd in.

The three have combined in thrilling fashion in white-ball cricket before — most notably when he saved England’s World Cup campaign in 2019 with centuries against India and New Zealand — but, after 10 years, he finally has it on the Test stage.

Jonny’s Test: a 92-ball 136, with the sun beating down, a packed house full of adoring fans drunk on free tickets, all with England wobbling in a blitzed chase to seal a superb series. Simply unforgettable.

Bairstow’s has been among the most beguiling Test careers, with stops, starts, feasts, famines and so many roles. There have been glorious moments, but they have often come in the wake of someone else: think his emotional, unbeaten maiden century in Cape Town in 2016, when Ben Stokes casually whacked 258 at the other end.

This time, it was Stokes left in the shade. At tea, with 160 required from 38 overs and a long tail, things felt tetchy. Not in the England dressing room. As Bairstow, 43 from 48, munched a ham and cheese toastie and sipped coffee, Brendon McCullum told the team to “walk towards the danger”.

When he saw New Zealand set fielders on the fence for a bumper barrage, Stokes followed his coach’s lead. “He said, ‘don’t even think about hitting the ball down — just keep trying to plant it in the stands’,” said Bairstow. “So I just did what the captain said.”

And in some style: Bairstow whacked seven sixes. He did not quite manage to break Gilbert Jessop’s slightly-dubious 120-year-old record (there is no ball-by-ball data from 1902) for England’s fastest Test century. Anyway, it feels like that record will not last long, given England’s current approach.

This extraordinary knock was perfectly timed — not just for his team, but for Bairstow, too. Ollie Pope’s hundred and Ben Foakes’s assured start to the series meant the outstanding form of Harry Brook, who is banging down the door by every metric England have, in every format, put Bairstow under the microscope, despite an excellent year so far.

And having chosen the bright lights of the IPL over the County Championship early this season, many thought he should be dropped. In fact, Bairstow believes the IPL was the best preparation possible.

“It would be fantastic if you had four games of red-ball cricket under your belt,” he said. “Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen in the current scheduling.

“We’re very fortunate to be able to play in some of the best competitions against the best players in the world. So when it comes to pressure situations, the more you’re able to put yourself under those pressure situations, the better.”

Jonny Bairstow struck the second-fastest Test century in England history at Trent Bridge (Action Images via Reuters)
Jonny Bairstow struck the second-fastest Test century in England history at Trent Bridge (Action Images via Reuters)

McCullum and Stokes are not going to toss a player with the upside (a current buzzword) of Bairstow away just like that. In this team, he is playing the McCullum role and there are some striking similarities between them as cricketers at this stage of their career.

When McCullum became New Zealand captain in 2013, he was 31 and had played 70 Tests, many of them as a wicketkeeper, with an average in the mid-thirties. He was also an explosive ODI opener and IPL regular. Sound familiar? Bairstow is 32 and had played 83 Tests when the new coach arrived, but the rest is identical.

Like McCullum, he is being asked to settle at No5, without the gloves. McCullum enjoyed a fruitful final chapter in Tests, averaging 45 to take his career figure beyond 38. That is the blueprint for Bairstow, and he has made a good start.

Since his recall in Melbourne at Christmas, he averages 45, with three centuries in his six Tests this year. Those hundreds have some significant similarities. England were 36 for four, 48 for four and 56 for three when Bairstow walked in, with Joe Root gone cheaply each time. Each time, he shared a vital partnership with Stokes, with whom he bats so well.

“I’m hugely proud of the fact that sometimes, when the chips are down, you stand up,” he said. “That might be something that you’re born with, it might be something that you have deep down that springs out of you at those moments.”

This extraordinary knock was perfectly timed — not just for his team, but for Bairstow, too

The words “born with” provide a neat reminder of what makes Bairstow tick. He is a complicated character, in a flash both spiky and smiley. But like us all he has been shaped by life’s journey.

For him, that means playing for his late father, David, another flame-haired Yorkshire and England cricketer, who took his own life when Jonny was eight. Celebrating his century yesterday, there was the trademark look skywards. David’s smile back could surely never have been broader than this.

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