After the early wilderness years with England, Yorkshire’s adrenaline junkie has pitched his tent squarely on the unforgiving plains of international cricket, laying the groundwork for a full-scale tilt at the summit. “To survive in the wild is a special thing to do,” he tells Daniel Brigham.
Jonny Bairstow is talking about Steve Irwin and Ray Mears. Irwin, the maverick, late Australian conservationist who was nicknamed ‘The Crocodile Hunter’, and Mears, the English bushcraft and survival specialist. “I think they’re fascinating guys,” says Bairstow. “To survive in the wild is a special thing to be able to do.” His admiration is genuine; his enthusiasm while talking about them infectious. He says he used to avoid revision at school by watching their TV shows.
This isn’t your usual set of heroes for a sportsman. There’s no mention of David Beckham here, no compulsory namedrop of Nelson Mandela or Muhammad Ali. Bairstow, it turns out, is full of these sorts of surprises. Yet we think we know his story: a pugnacious wicketkeeper/ batsman with a combative personality and strong, highly emotional ties to his family following the suicide of his father, David Bairstow, in 1998.
There is far more to Bairstow’s tale. After his stirring 150 in Cape Town, rearguard 140 at Headingley and buccaneering 167* at Lord’s his past should no longer define him. At 26 he is becoming the vital, street-fighting, gun-slinging presence in England’s Test side many predicted he would become when he broke into Yorkshire’s County Championship side seven years ago. His stay with the England team is set to be a long one, so perhaps we ought to get to know Jonny Bairstow a little better.
Sedbergh School. A soggy, boggy pitch following heavy rainfall. Jonny Bairstow, 14, is playing his first game for St Peter’s 1st XI. He is nicknamed Ron Weasley, after the Harry Potter character. Not just because of his flaming hair, but also due to his rather slight nature: he is smaller than the other boys, many of whom are two years older.
No one in the St Peter’s side can hit a boundary that day. They lose three quick wickets. In comes little Jonny to face his first ball. Mike Johnston, Bairstow’s games teacher, is watching. “His first shot is an on-drive for four,” he remembers. “Nobody else had been able to hit a boundary, and this little lads hits his first ball for four down the ground.”
This wasn’t a surprise to those who had been following his progress. Bairstow, already in the Yorkshire set-up at the time, was one of those kids who could kick, throw, hit or catch a ball better than you. He was captain of the school hockey side and fly-half in the rugby union team, representing his county. He was on the books at the Leeds United academy for seven years from the age of seven. He loved all sports; he was good at all sports (“I’m sure my PE teacher Mr Johnston would tell you I wasn’t the greatest swimmer,” Bairstow says. Mr Johnston agrees, to an extent: “When we got to the pool I used to tell him ‘I’ve got you now, Bairstow!’ But in the grand scheme of things he’s of a good standard – just not to the level of his other sports.”)
Cricket, though, is where his soul was. By the age of 15, Bairstow was playing for Yorkshire under 17s. “He struck the ball so cleanly,” says Ian Dews, Yorkshire’s director of cricket development. “He hit the ball so hard for a young man, and he still does. It was natural hand-eye timing – he wasn’t a big strapping lad who could bully the bowling, it was always down to natural timing and he kept everything really simple – it was see the ball, hit the ball, and see the ball, catch the ball.”
Bairstow settled easily into a life of playing with guys older than him. “They all looked after me really well, and some are really good friends still,” Bairstow says, speaking on the phone ahead of the first Test of the summer. “But you can imagine, with me being a kid and playing with guys in the Upper Sixth, I was a cheeky little bugger running around that first-team pitch.” How cheeky was he? “He was always there for a quip, but never rude,” says Johnston. “He wasn’t a saint, but he was a good lad, a really good lad.”
Bairstow’s early academy success with Yorkshire and Leeds United didn’t turn him into a big cheese around the school. He would help out less able kids in PE lessons, and when it was decided he should stop playing rugby in order to avoid injury while his cricket was starting to take off, he still turned out as a water-carrier for the first team to lend his support.
“He had to be involved, otherwise he got bored – and a bored Jonny is not what you want!” says Dews. “He can sleep anywhere, can Jonny. You used to find him powernapping anywhere and everywhere. It he wasn’t sleeping, he was doing.” And when he was doing, he was doing it with a competitive streak Jordan Belfort – that wolf of Wall Street – would be proud of.
“Very, very competitive,” Dews says. “He wanted to be the best, wanted to be out in front and entertain people. The hardest thing with Jonny was reining him back, right through into his pro career. If somebody hit a six, Jonny would want to hit one bigger. If somebody was scoring at a run a ball, Jonny would want to score at a run and a half a ball.” Sometimes, says Dews, Bairstow would open the bowling, put the gloves on to keep wicket, then bowl a bit of spin if a partnership needed breaking.
There was brain to go with his brawn. He could read game situations well across all sports, and control the tempo of rugby and hockey matches. As young as 13, he would sidle over to Johnston during cricket matches and politely – he was always polite – mention technical weaknesses he’d spotted in opposition batsmen. He was nearly always right.
Bairstow’s immersion in sport continued off the field. At Leeds Metropolitan University, he first lived with a group of hockey lads, and then four rugby pals: James Craig, now at Northampton Saints; Craig Hampson, now at Wasps; Dan White, now at Rotherham; Richard Beck, now at Yorkshire Carnegie.
“Being around that environment was fantastic,” Bairstow says. “It’s a diverse group of people, and it was great fun. The lads had to buy an extra freezer to keep all of the meat they had to eat. Obviously they were eating a heck of a lot, and I used to get a bit jealous looking at them eating it all, but it was all right because Craig Hampson, who used to play cricket for Yorkshire schools too – a wicketkeeper – was about the same size as me, so it wasn’t too bad!”
Bairstow adores rugby, and spends plenty of his downtime watching Leeds Rhinos. “I enjoyed the physical side of it: it’s part and parcel of it and was great fun,” he says. “I think rugby teaches you a heck of a lot about yourself and about teamwork. The ethics of it are fantastic for young people to get into.”
You might think, with sport such an integral part of his teenage years, Bairstow would be a bit of a cricket badger. A numbers nerd. A stats boffin. “No, I’m terrible at stuff like that,” he says. “Really woeful. I leave that sort of thing to Gary Ballance.” Asked to name Yorkshire’s leading run-scorer of all time – Herbert Sutcliffe – Bairstow admits he doesn’t know. He does, though, want to take a guess, but not at the usual suspects – Boycott, Hutton, Vaughan, Hirst, Close, Rhodes. Instead he goes for Lord Hawke, 27th on the list. Hawke, in case you don’t know, captained Yorkshire for 28 years – winning eight County Championship titles – and played his last Test in 1899. He was the original Mr Yorkshire. There is something very likeable about that answer.
You get the sense with Bairstow that, rather than swotting up on cricket stats and facts, he enjoys a bit of adventure. His taste for the physical side of rugby and his fondness for Steve Irwin and Ray Mears – as well as admitting he would love to have been part of the gruelling bootcamp ahead of the 2010/11 Ashes – makes you wonder how he’d cope on a desert island, or even I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here. “I’d like to think I’d keep myself dry, but I might struggle with what to eat and what not to eat. I don’t think I’d fancy eating a witchetty grub, or a bull’s testicle or an eyeball…”
While he acknowledges his fortune in having a career that takes him all over the world, the idea of backpacking appeals to him. “I’d have loved to have had a gap year,” he says, playfully pronouncing ‘year’ as ‘yaar’ in the vain of David Lloyd mimicking a posh accent. “Going to find myself in Ko Pha-Ngan or tubing in Laos; if the opportunity had arisen I’d definitely have tried it.”
At Trent Bridge in May 2011, Bairstow finally reached three figures. He’d played 34 matches and passed fifty an astonishing 17 times, but a century had eluded him. He went on to make a double hundred, sharing Yorkshire’s record ninth-wicket stand of 151 with Ryan Sidebottom. It was rather fitting that it was Sidebottom with whom Bairstow could share such a moment. “It was very special,” says Sidebottom. “When we were in the middle we briefly spoke about it being father and sons and we had a bit of a chuckle about it.” Sidebottom’s father, Arnie, and Jonny’s father, David, were great mates and Yorkshire favourites throughout the 1970s and ’80s (Ryan still gets called Arnie on a regular basis).
Ryan Sidebotton, 11 years Bairstow’s senior, has known him since childhood. He would go round to the Bairstows’ house for family barbecues, and join them on pre-season trips. He has acted as a mentor throughout Bairstow’s life, and Jonny is godfather to Sidebottom’s son. “We go out together sometimes – he takes Uncle Siddy out – and I’ve ended up going home early and being sick! So it’s pretty much like my dad and his dad.”
When Sidebottom moved to Nottinghamshire in 2004, they stayed in touch. And when Bairstow broke into the Yorkshire side in 2009, Sidebottom was impressed with what he saw when bowling against him – especially during an unbeaten 84 at Scarborough while Yorkshire struggled. “You could tell then that he was going to grow up and play international cricket at some stage – he had the talent and the bravado,” Sidebottom says. “He sticks his chest out, he means business and I really like that in him. He wants to do well, he’s really aggressive, and he doesn’t take a backward step. He really stood out. Not just for me, but for all the Notts guys.”
Their connection with Yorkshire through their fathers means the Headingley crowd have always had a soft spot for Sidebottom and Bairstow. “I’ve been at Yorkshire since I was really young,” says Bairstow. “So you know the history and the heritage of the club. Everything that goes with it is very special, and it’s just great to be around.”
“I do look fondly on the board in the dining room,” says Sidebottom. “You’ve got David Bairstow and my dad up there, and there’s me and Jonny as well and it means a great deal. I remember winning the Championship with Yorkshire at Trent Bridge in 2014, and it was a really emotional time for Jonny. His mum was there and we all had a little cry – little things like that mean a great deal.”
Sidebottom, who sits next to him in the Yorkshire dressing room, says their age gap means he has taken on a role of looking out for him: “It’s just the little things,” Sidebottom says. “I don’t really talk to him about the game, it’s more stuff away from the game – keep going, don’t get down when things aren’t going your way, keep working hard and don’t forget where you’ve come from, and always have a smile on your face, rather than getting down and getting angry with yourself.”
Bairstow’s 150 at Newlands was an aborted Test career finally coming to life. A punchy, raging 95 against South Africa at Lord’s in 2012 – when he took on and subdued Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn by swatting their ferocious bouncer barrage and rocket-clipping anything full – suggested he was there to stay. But he remained in and out of the England side, and his reputation was damaged – some thought permanently – when he took the hospital pass of replacing Matt Prior for the final two Tests of the 2013/14 Ashes whitewash. He returned to Yorkshire unsure of himself after his technique had been ripped apart by well-intentioned advice. The county did what they have always done with him: taught him to focus on his positives – see ball, hit ball – rather than obsessing with any perceived technical weaknesses.
Two years on, Bairstow looks in complete control of his batting: head popping up and his back rigid, bat held high like he’s about to take on a horde of zombies, eyes looking down at the middle of the pitch before drifting back up to the bowler, front leg a flagpole of intent, feet set apart. He is explosive but savvy, attacking but canny; like his Yorkshire teammate Joe Root he spots gaps and runs teams ragged, and like Jos Buttler, the man he took the Test gloves from, he can clear the outfield with a nonchalant swipe. That Cape Town century – with Ben Stokes causing carnage at the other end – was a neon light announcing his arrival. Bairstow describes it as “very, very special. A very proud moment for me”. The Headingley hundred – his batting purred while everyone else stuttered – was confirmation that he is here to stay. For the first time since Prior’s retirement, he isn’t missed.
Dews, watching the Newlands innings at home, was a proud man. “I said to Jonny when he’d got his hundred in Cape Town that he’d grown up a lot,” he says. “The old Jonny would probably have got out trying to keep up with Ben Stokes. But he just played the second fiddle, which he never used to.
“I think we’re going to see what he really can do now. He took a little while at age-group cricket, then dominated it; he took a little while at second XI cricket, then dominated it; he took a little while at county cricket, and is now dominating it. Now we hope he can do the same at Test level. Once he’s worked it out and got himself right, he dominates.” His counter-attacking century at Headingley against Sri Lanka, with England in real trouble on day one of the series, and his subsequent ton at Lord’s, suggests Dews may well be on to something.
Bairstow, however, doesn’t seem to really like talking about his career. Engaging, charming and funny when chatting about things outside of cricket, he rather closes shop when asked about Cape Town and what’s behind his surge in runs over the last two years (“I’ve got no idea to be honest with you, it’s just kind of come together”). Cricket, it appears, is his own bubble.
Bairstow is a little tetchy when talking about keeping wicket – a role he says he enjoys because it is similar to being a fly-half in rugby: always in the mix, always reading the game. His tetchiness, though, is understandable: he has been Yorkshire’s first-choice keeper since replacing Gerard Brophy at the start of the 2011 season, so it is somewhat surprising when he is still asked whether he would like to give up the gloves. Bairstow is almost certainly good enough to play as a specialist batsman in England’s middle-order, but to believe that he would be happy to lose the gloves is to misunderstand the man. “People who ask me that generally haven’t come to very many county games,” Bairstow says. “I’ve kept wicket for Yorkshire now for a long time – if I didn’t want to keep wicket I wouldn’t have put myself through the pain and hours of practice.
“People will keep speculating for years to come I’m sure, but we’ll leave them to do that and we’ll just get on with our jobs because, at the end of the day, they’re paid to have an opinion. Yes I do want to keep wicket, yes I will keep keeping wicket and we’ll let other people chat what they want to chat.”
Sidebottom isn’t too surprised about the occasional bout of grumpiness. “I’m sure he won’t mind me saying, but when I first came back to Yorkshire, wow what a grump!” he says. “He calls me Mr Grump and I call him Mr Grump. We’ve both got a bit of fiery red in us, and we can both be grumpy and not want people to talk to us and stuff but he’s definitely mellowed.”
Bairstow is also aware of where he came from, of what forged him. He talks very fondly of Johnston and Dews, and of David Kirby (“Mr Kirby” to Bairstow), who was master in charge of cricket at St Peter’s for 44 years until his retirement in 2012. Bairstow returns to St Peter’s when he can, and he is often around Sidebottom’s house for barbecues – like fathers like sons. He lives on his own just outside Leeds – his car almost splutters out of petrol during the interview (“Not turning up at Headingley would’ve been a bit embarrassing, especially with it being my home ground!”) – and seems comfortable in his own skin. Sidebottom says there have been changes over the last 18 months.
“He’s learned to chill out, to relax a bit more, to not let things affect him as much,” he says. “He’s just matured a lot into a young man, and that’s really helped his play. He’s batting beautifully, and that 150 at Cape Town really settled him down. He’ll know now he belongs and that he can do it at the highest level.”
Bairstow knows his game. He knows what works. He knows what it takes to survive in the unforgiving wilds of international cricket; Ray Mears and Steve Irwin would be proud. Finally, it can be all about the future for Bairstow. “Our jobs are to go out and entertain people,” he says. “I’m just enjoying my cricket, and I’m playing the way I’ve always wanted to play.”
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