Mark Butcher: England should pick Foakes and Bairstow, open with Harry Brook in the Ashes
Former England batter Mark Butcher has had his say on the debate over how to fit Jonny Bairstow back into the Test side for the Ashes.
The discussion around Bairstow has been one of the dominant talking points ahead of this summer’s England-Australia contest. Bairstow was arguably England’s best player in 2022, with a spectacular run of form underpinning their success in the early stages of the Ben Stokes-Brendon McCullum era. However, a freak leg break while golfing saw him miss England’s winter tours, with Harry Brook putting up a record-breaking start to his Test career in Bairstow’s absence.
With Bairstow back fit, that leaves McCullum with the dilemma of figuring out whether both he and Brook can fit in the same XI. Multiple possibilities have been put forward, including Bairstow taking the gloves from current wicketkeeper Ben Foakes, with the Yorkshireman having previously spent time as England’s first-choice gloveman. However, speaking on the Wisden Cricket Weekly Podcast, Butcher said that Foakes’ place in the England team should not be in danger.
“There’s only a certain amount of batting spots in the England team,” he said. “Ben Foakes has come out at the beginning of the season, one of the Five [Wisden Cricketers of the Year], and kind of said, ‘well, you’re not having my spot’. And he is brilliant, he’s proven that in an England shirt. It would be unfair and it would also put Jonny back in the position he was in before, where he’s never been as productive as he was as a lone batter batting at No.5, so to me, that’s not the answer. It’s a huge compromise, and it’s kind of one of those Alec Stewart conversations in reverse, where you would compromise Alec’s ability with the bat to give the team balance. What you would be doing here would be compromising Jonny’s ability with the bat to give the team balance to have him bat at No.7 and keep wicket.”
If Brook, Bairstow and Foakes are all to play, it leaves England with few other options to rejig their batting line-up. Ben Stokes is the captain and Joe Root one of England’s best-ever batters, while Ollie Pope has made the No.3 spot his own. While Ben Duckett and Zak Crawley have less glittering CVs, none of those below them are specialist openers. However, Butcher advocated for leaving out the latter – who averages 27.60 from 33 Tests – and promoting Brook to open in his absence.
“Now you’ve got six places with seven players looking for them. There is an obvious weak spot somewhere – I’m not even going to say his name because it makes no difference what anybody says or what logic says. But there is a player in there who hasn’t pulled up any trees and is under increasing pressure, and you’ve got these two guys in Bairstow and Harry Brook vying for the No.5 spot. Brook has already said ‘I’ll bat anywhere. Don’t worry about me, I’ll bat where you put me’, and Jonny would be very, very keen to reprise No.5.”
Butcher acknowledged the possibility of Stokes taking the job of opening on himself, but while he could see the merits of doing so, he argued that Brook moving up the order was preferable. “I might ask Harry Brook to do it, but Stokes might go, ‘I’m not going to ask anybody to do anything I wouldn’t do myself, so sod it, I’ll do it’,” he said.
“For me, I don’t think you’re messing with somebody like Harry Brook’s career in doing this. For me, that’s where it becomes more palatable. It’s not ideal. None of this is ideal. We’re not talking about, ‘this is the best thing to happen and it’s going to work forever.’ But I just think Harry Brook is so good that you’re not messing with him too much. He might have a bad series. He might, who knows? But the risks of moving someone like Ben Stokes with all the other stuff that he has to deal with in terms of setting the agenda for the entire team… I’m quite happy with him where he is. But Jonny Bairstow is the one that gets more affected by him bouncing up and down [the batting order]. Even the psychological effect of the youngster being preferred to him, the knock to his ego would be more detrimental to him, if you were to move him, than it would be to anybody else. In an imperfect world, there is my explanation for why that is the way I would go. However, it’s all completely moot because Zak Crawley will be playing!”
“I like both ideas,” Butcher concluded, speaking about either Brook or Stokes opening. “I don’t think either one would be wrong. The only wrong would be Ben Foakes not playing. I think that’s wrong. And then you do what you like with the rest.
The Ashes begins on June 16 at Edgbaston.