Why England need Jonny Bairstow’s redemptive arc more than he does

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  • Jonny Bairstow
    Jonny Bairstow
    English cricketer (born 1989)
  • James Anderson
    English cricketer, born 1982
  • Joe Root
    Joe Root
    English cricketer (born 1990)
Bairstow absorbed 105 balls on the final day, spending 32 overs (Getty)
Bairstow absorbed 105 balls on the final day, spending 32 overs (Getty)

“The whole time Jonny Bairstow was at the crease, I thought: ‘We’ve got this,’” said James Anderson on the latest episode of Tailenders. A sentiment shared by all with English persuasions during the fourth Ashes Test in Sydney.

Anderson was talking specifically about the second innings, as England clung on to a last-gasp draw to nullify the threat of a second whitewash in the last three overseas Ashes. The 39-year-old had to finish the job himself by seeing out the last over, but Bairstow’s absorption of 105 balls on the final day, spending 32 overs in the middle with three different partners, came with an air of tranquility.

Bairstow is not the first player that comes to mind when it comes to “calm”. That’s not quite what he is about. Teammates often refer to how his energy, which underpins a lot of his motivation and method, and how at times it can be a little irksome. But after 113 in the first innings, which ensured the deficit going into the second half was only 122, he was infinitely more blessing than a nuisance. Without him, Australia would be homing in on a 5-0 scoreline.

Those words from Anderson are worth dwelling on. Because beyond Joe Root, and at times Ben Stokes, no one in this England side make others feel at ease when they are batting. Ollie Pope was jettisoned after the second Test when the anxiety of his own poor form became contagious. The irony being he was supposed to move the conversation away from Bairstow, as evidenced by only five of Pope’s 22 caps coming alongside the Yorkshireman. Now the other was taking the heat off the anointed one, along with the rest.

Pope, having just turned 24, is still regarded as the future, and his removal was a pre-emptive measure, just as Root’s axing during the 2013-14 Ashes was to limit his scars. And in doing so, England might have stumbled back to a man they have underappreciated who could help them find brighter days ahead.

In a batting unit where the more established players get the longer rope and others are shifted about for their benefit, Bairstow is the exception: a “name” who has not benefited from that luxury. He’s been one of the many disrupted, batting from number three to eight, with and without the gloves, in a variety of conditions across nine different countries.

James Anderson (left) was full of praise for Jonny Bairstow (AFP/Getty)
James Anderson (left) was full of praise for Jonny Bairstow (AFP/Getty)

That being said, all of the above can be distilled simply into “numerous opportunities” to get it right, and average better than his 34. Sydney was Bairstow’s 80th cap and, should he be passed fit for Hobart, he will be one behind Michael Vaughan’s tally, having already passed luminaries such as Andrew Flintoff (79) and Marcus Trescothick (76). Whatever gripes he might have over roles seems trivial to certain sections of English cricket – both fans to peers. The kind of minor inconveniences only Larry David gets away with moaning about.

It’s hard not to play the hits when discussing Bairstow, because it has become a bit of a self-fulfilling talking point. The whole “proving people wrong” is overblown and, yet, entirely in keeping with how and when he has engaged in his best work. That is hardly unique to Bairstow, but is put on him more than most and exaggerated by his own demeanour. The full-hearted celebration of his ninth Test century in the middle of the Sydney Cricket Ground were equal parts relief and told-you-so.

Being 32 means there is hesitation to regard him as a solution for England’s batting failings outright, especially given he has been privy to the most problematic defeats. But there is a timelessness about him – as much great survivor as grizzly time lord. The strain of making it through to his Nth iteration as a Test starter reflected in a thicker, more unkempt beard. The brutality of the hands and blueness of the eyes suggested little has dulled with time.

He is quite the era-spanning international, debuting in September 2011 – 15 months before Root – lining up in his first Test at six, between Ian Bell and Matt Prior, with Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen up top. In a team of adults, he had the luxury of the apprenticeship, until that fell apart two years later and he was deemed ill-equipped to handle the heavy machinery. He’d played 25 times in both white ball codes before the 2015 revamp, then worked to become a mainstay of the revolution.

Bairstow survives a run-out attempt on day dive of the fourth Test (Getty)
Bairstow survives a run-out attempt on day dive of the fourth Test (Getty)

Then came a divergence of sorts. There were 1,470 Test runs in 2016, now the 15th most in the calendar year after Root’s 2021 slotted in at number three. Across the next three years, he only managed 125 more than that tally from 58 innings, at a lowly average of 27.98.

At the same time, Bairstow set new standards against the white ball, with nine ODI hundreds, an average of 53 and a strike rate of 108.24. And whatever your regard for the limited-overs formats, it’s not quite as simple as Bairstow becoming a worse Test player, just a different kind of batter. And a really damn good one.

All of which makes this juncture of his career all the more interesting. The first innings hundred felt like the perfect example of his quality, a statement to himself but also others that he was worthy of appreciation. Backing that up with a three-hour-long 41 in the second to take a chunk out of the final day felt like something greater. Something far more sustainable.

Are we on the cusp of Bairstow 3.0? Anecdotally, we might be. The quirks he adopted for white-ball cricket don’t seem to be there anymore. He no longer seems as leg side of the ball, with fewer full-blooded cuts and straighter tucks into midwicket. An off-stump guard adopted against India in the summer did not produce much of note at the time but appears to be bearing fruit now. Australia did not spend much time checking if he was still susceptible to straight deliveries, but the whole package looked a little more sound. Ironically, this change of approach might explain a dire T20 World Cup campaign in which he averaged just 11.75, with 47 runs from 42 deliveries across six innings.

Bairstow played a key role in ensuring England avoided an Ashes whitewash (AFP/Getty)
Bairstow played a key role in ensuring England avoided an Ashes whitewash (AFP/Getty)

There certainly seemed a greater sense of belonging, a swagger not seen for some time in whites. Of a man self-assured, finally crystal clear on how valued he was to the group. Albeit in a cursed situation where his standing was that little greater because the rest were so low.

Nevertheless, there remain broader considerations. Should this performance be taken in isolation? Is this a statement of what Bairstow can be going forward or a reminder of what might have been? Was this a “here’s what you could have won” or are we still in with a shot for the speedboat?

Those are things for the rest of us to pontificate. What is clear is a player who has countless options is still desperate to conquer Test cricket. After he saved their blushes in Sydney, and, to a point, the series, there’s no reason for England not to wed themselves to Bairstow’s redemptive arc. All told, they need it more than he does.

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