Speaking on the Wisden Cricket Weekly Podcast, former England batter Mark Butcher explained how, in his view, it would be a mistake if England picked Jonny Bairstow over Ollie Pope for the first Ashes Test at Brisbane.
England’s attempt to regain the urn kicks off at the Gabba on December 8, with Bairstow the reported frontrunner to bat at No.6, leaving Pope sidelined. Pope was picked in the England Lions XI for England’s final warm-up match, while Bairstow was given two innings on the final day of preparatory action, alongside certain starters Ben Stokes, Joe Root and Jos Buttler. Bairstow was also reported to have been in line for selection for England’s cancelled Test against India at Old Trafford, with Pope set to make way for the returning Jos Buttler.
Having not played a Test in 2020, Bairstow earned a recall for England’s tours of Sri Lanka and India at the start of 2021. While his selection was initially assumed to have been made on the basis of his skills batting against spin, and despite Bairstow averaging only 23.85 in that winter, the ODI great kept his spot after returning from the Indian Premier League. His summer’s efforts were only marginally more fruitful, with an average of 26.28 and a high score of 57.
Bairstow’s poor form extends back to the start of 2019, in which time that 57 is his highest score, and his average of 21.40 is the third worst of any batter in the world with at least 20 innings in the top seven. In his favour is his white-ball prowess, with Bairstow the only opener in the history of ODI cricket (min. 1,000 runs) to average more than 50 at above a run a ball, and his previous success in Australia. On England’s 2017/18 tour, Bairstow was one of only three players to make a century, although that was his only score above 50 in a series in which he averaged 34.00.
Pope’s career record is marginally worse than that of Bairstow’s – he has an average of 32.16 compared to Bairstow’s 33.70 – but he has an impressive first-class record, averaging 53.24. His most recent Test saw him make 81 against India, and he notched 274 in his last County Championship game for Surrey.
Pope’s maiden Test hundred came in early 2020 against South Africa, a knock which Butcher feels should advance his case to play in Australia ahead of Bairstow.
“The best that Ollie Pope has played for England was on England’s victorious trip to South Africa, at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020,” he said. “He looked every inch a Test match No.5 or No.6 on that trip. Kookaburra ball, bouncy pitches etc. The undoubted promise that Ollie Pope has, I suppose the expectation is on him, because his county average is so fantastic, when he doesn’t make a hundred every time he plays for England, everyone says he’s massively overrated. I don’t think so.
“I think conditions in Australia, being, as they are, very similar to those in South Africa, the Wanderers, where he made that sparkling hundred against [Anrich] Nortje and Co., would suit him just as much as he did down there, so that would be a shame.”
Trying to understand England’s logic, Butcher pointed to the fact that Bairstow was first-choice ahead of Pope recently. He also wondered if Bairstow might have extra motivation to prove people wrong, as he has done successfully in the past.
“Jonny Bairstow’s numbers are pretty shocking, but England would point to consistency and say that he would have played in that Test match at Old Trafford,” Butcher said. “Pope only got the chance to make the 80 that he did at The Oval because of the birth of Jos Buttler’s child, and so they are just reverting to the plan that they had before then. It’s a long-winded way of me saying, I think it’s a mistake. I think Ollie Pope should probably start ahead of Jonny Bairstow. It’s maybe the last-chance saloon for Jonny, and when he’s in that situation, quite often he comes up with something. From an England point of view, you hope that that’s the case, but I think it’s a wrong move.”