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Ashes 2021/22

Hear him roar – Jonny Bairstow is far from finished as a Test force

Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner
@Ben_Wisden 4 minute read

There’s nothing quite like a Jonny Bairstow Test match century roar.

The face reddens to match the beard and hair. Veins throb where you didn’t even realise humans had veins. The arms clench in in a double bicep curl before expanding outwards to accept the adulation. It’s as much a celebration as an affront, a message to those who have questioned him, of which there are always some, even if of his own invention.

This time there were plenty of genuine doubters, and plenty of legitimate doubts. With one innings and one roar, Bairstow answered them.

This was high-class Test batting. While the lateral movement that helped reduce England to 36-4 diminished after lunch, the uneven bounce only increased, and Bairstow and Ben Stokes copped blow after blow, one of which, to the former’s thumb, might well keep him out of the fifth Test. But while Stokes had fortune, dropped by Pat Cummins in his follow-through as well as having his off-stump clipped, Bairstow was chanceless.

His was also a supremely paced innings, with Bairstow 15 off 44 before slowly expanding, and then cutting loose once Stokes and Jos Buttler left him with only the tail for company. By the end he was smashing Nathan Lyon and Cameron Green over the leg-side and unfurling those come-at-me drives that make him one of the most must-watch white-ball batters in the world. “You’ve got to earn the right to show the intent,” Bairstow said after play. “You can’t be reckless with it. It’s about being positive in your movements, your body language, the way in which you address the crease, leave the ball.”

And then there was the pressure, about as extreme as it can get in a dead rubber contest. He came in in the midst of a scoreless 70-ball stretch that contained three wickets, England in danger of a three-day defeat despite the time lost to rain, and ended the day having salvaged some desperately needed pride. Given his own recent struggles – this was his first score above 60 since his last Test hundred, against Sri Lanka in November 2018 – this series felt like the last chance for Bairstow to extend his Test career.

Two events coincided with Bairstow’s decline: his promotion to being England’s first-choice ODI opener, and Jos Buttler’s reintroduction into the Test team. The former is the most commonly associated with the dip in returns. Bairstow tweaked his technique, so the theory goes, in order to pierce the off-side more regularly, and in doing so exposed his stumps. He has been bowled or lbw in 26 of his next last 51 innings. Perhaps Bairstow was capable of being both a world-class Test and ODI player, just not at the same time.

Or perhaps Bairstow’s defence was never his strength, and it was as a wicketkeeper, counterpunching from No.7, that he was always at his best. Buttler’s recall came as a specialist No.7, pushing Bairstow up to No.5, and kicked off a period in which he batted everywhere from No.3 to No.7, with and without the gloves, and came in and out of the side again and again. Bairstow’s record in the top five is far inferior to from 6-8, averaging 28.56 compared to 37.88, he has a better record with the gloves than without, 37.37 to 28.80, and he has a better record with Buttler not in the side than with him in it, averaging 29.16 with Buttler and 37.56 without. You can take your pick on which of those is relevant, but it’s hard to conclude that none of them is.

This is not to say that Buttler’s Test return has been a failure, or that he should be dropped. He has been better than he gets credit for, and two Tests ago very nearly kept England to 1-0 down after two. His dismissal in the first innings can be attributed to the hand injury that kept him off the field in the second. There may yet be more to come. It’s possible to have more than one player suited to a particular position, or less than one. That’s sort of been England’s problem.

In any case, examination of the causes can only get you so far. Whether England could have handled Bairstow better is one question. Whether there was a way to get him back to where he once was, while ensuring he remained a world force in limited-overs cricket, is quite another. Shunting him around the order felt unfair to begin with, but soon seemed a desperate attempt to find something that would work. He looked more secure during the summer, but the starts remained just that, with five dismissals between 28 and 30 in 2021. As Joe Root urged for a reset after the Ashes, akin to England’s post-2015 World Cup white-ball tear up, it felt as if Bairstow would be one of the casualties.

That might still be the case. There are four contenders to be England’s Test wicketkeeper going forward, and plenty more to bat at No.6. There is still an argument that England’s white-ball regulars who are replaceable in Tests should be made to focus on the former, rather than come in and out of the side in an era of rest and rotation.

But Bairstow has shown he deserves to be part of the conversation, that he is far from finished as a Test force. This might be a glorious goodbye, or it could be the start of a golden late-career surge. Whichever it is, it was pretty special.

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