@Phil_Wisden 5 minute read
Ahead of Jonny Bairstow’s mooted recall for the England Test tour of Sri Lanka, Wisden Cricket Monthly editor-in-chief Phil Walker delves into the curious career of one of English cricket’s most divisive and talented batsmen.
Jonny Bairstow deserves more respect. His work across a decade at the sharp end of the game should speak for itself. And yet here he is again, 31 now, standing full-square (chest out, eyes ablaze) at another pivotal point in his curious career.
His story speaks on some level of the perils of wanting it all. The game these days is as much a mass of garish shirts and shotgun alliances as the painstaking accumulation of an international record of inarguable substance. For the athlete-hitter, especially one who can catch with the gloves, the world has opened up like never before. But as the old orders get shaken up, invariably something has to give. There is little doubt that in isolation Bairstow can compete at any level, against any colour of ball, in any conditions. But if modern cricket tells us anything, it’s how devilishly hard it is to do it all at once.
His white-ball record is irrefutable. He’s won a World Cup, making consecutive hundreds in must-win games against two of the best teams around. He’s nestled in the top 10 of the world’s ODI batsmen, with a conversion rate of 10 ODI centuries from 76 innings putting him out on his own of any English batsman to have played more than 20 matches. In 50-over cricket – 3,000+ runs at 47, strike-rate north of 100 – he could make a pretty good case to be considered England’s best ever. And after a couple of useful IPL dalliances he’s now a world presence in the shorter stuff, coming off a rattling 86* on opening night of England’s latest world tour. Yet even that one carried a whiff of righteous defiance; shunted down to No.4, away from the fresh promise of the new ball, he took his ire out on the spinners instead. It was pointedly brutal.
It’s against the red ball where things get messier. On the credit side, he’s featured in two Ashes series wins (albeit peripherally), and as Test wicketkeeper compiled overseas hundreds at Perth, Christchurch and Cape Town, with another forged at Colombo as an out-and-out No.3.
That Colombo knock featured the classic Bairstowian facets of pugnacity and adaptiveness ranged across several pyres of burning indignation. After that one, still pumped (he is rarely unpumped), he gave an interview in which he didn’t bother to conceal his displeasure at the way the keeper’s gloves had been taken from him (and in this case handed to Ben Foakes). Injured for the start of the series, he was left out for the second game even after recovering, then told to bat at three for the final Test, for the first time in his career. He responded in typical fashion. It was his sixth Test century, and his most recent to date. It was two years ago.
He developed a problem against the inducker, with observers wondering if the adjustments he’d made to open up the off-side so devastatingly in white-ball cricket had weakened his defences against the red. At St Lucia in early 2019, he was bowled for the tenth time in 19 knocks. Two months later he bagged a pair at Lord’s against Ireland.
He hung on through the subsequent Ashes, keeping wicket (tidily) and playing decently at Lord’s and Leeds in Stokes’ slipstream, but the glow of his 2016 – when he scored more runs in a calendar year than any other keeper-batsman in history – was fading. For the start of last winter, the keeper’s gloves were removed once again and this time given to Jos Buttler. Bairstow lasted one Test match as a specialist batsman, and hasn’t played since.
Still, Bairstow inspires great devotion among his advocates. Despite averaging just 25 across 20 Tests since the start of 2018, many saw him as the fall guy for a listing Test side, a sense of injustice aggravated by the faith shown in Buttler, whose own form had lurched towards the cliff edge. The two JBs, keeper-batsmen, one-day immensities, came to offer an irresistible comparison, with Buttler’s management material and unflinching poise under fire – always appearing publicly relaxed about the ‘wicketkeeping situation’ – providing a stark counterpoint to the relentless intensity emanating from the red corner.
So the news that Bairstow is back in for the Sri Lanka mini-series in January is an intriguing development. It’s also a welcome one. The calls for new talent are understandable, but Bairstow is not yet an aged one. He is not done as a red-ball cricketer. The noises are that he’s been working hard with Graham Thorpe to reclaim his off-stump. He’s a good, punchily aggressive player of spin, and, looking ahead to next winter, he has runs in Australia. And yet he returns, as ever, in something of a bind, having had to reject his latest side-project with Melbourne Stars to re-join a set-up initially as its reserve batsman covering for Ollie Pope, who’s working to recover from a shoulder injury. It would need all of Bairstow’s resolve to grin through another stint on the sidelines, all bibbed up with nowhere to play. My guess, for what it’s worth, is that he’ll be back playing Test cricket this spring, if not in Sri Lanka then against India. My other guess, and hope, is that he’ll go pretty well.
I first interviewed Bairstow in 2012, four matches into his Test career. Though still finding his way – a peak Kemar Roach had gone after him initially – he had just delivered the first in a series of ripostes that would mark those early years, making a defiant 95 at Lord’s against South Africa and an expansive second-innings 54. The interview did not go great. I asked him at one point, probably stupidly, if he had ever considered, like some batsman-keepers such as Alec Stewart and Kumar Sangakkara, putting away the gloves for a bit to focus on his batting. The question stung him. “Why do you think I would want to do that?!” The rest was a washout, and it didn’t get much better thereafter.
A certain wariness tends to accompany Bairstow’s dealings with sections of the media. (In this of course he is far from alone.) In 2017, on the eve of the Ashes tour, I went to the Cheltenham Literary Festival to interview him. His autobiography was out, and he was there to give a talk to what would be a rammed gallery, a testament to his popularity among the general cricketing public. Our interview was rushed. I reminded him at one point of a passage in the book which runs thus: “… the most beautiful rebuke you can ever utter is ‘I told you so’”. I asked him if part of his career had been based on proving doubters wrong. “I think it’s more proving to yourself as well,” he said evenly. “A lot of that is about proving to yourself.” So, he hadn’t felt like ramming a few words down a few people’s throats? He looked me straight in the eye. Eventually: “I’m not saying anything.”
The follow-up we did a few days later was not much more fun. I asked him if the Aussie press and public getting stuck into the players ever got under their skin. “It’s terrible, that question! You’ve got the history of a bigger series than probably any other going. So, naturally there’s hype, naturally there’s chat. There’s… things.” A few weeks later he ‘bumps heads’ with Cameron Bancroft in a bar in Perth (“It’s a greeting thing he does with his mates,” said a weary Andrew Strauss, before issuing the midnight curfew), and a few more wheels come off in the tailspin.
The point of all this is to confess. There have been times in the last two years when I’ve looked on Bairstow’s struggles in the Test game less than sympathetically. I’d like to think it stemmed from a place of shared frustration at seeing his Test career hit the skids, that it was not really about personalities so much as the sacredness of Test cricket above all the rest of it. But that would be rubbish. The ugly awkward truth is that I let my judgment be skewed by a few iffy conversations with a bloke I barely know.
We can all fall into this trap, of course; even national team captains – cricket, for all its newish claims to progressiveness and inclusivity, is littered with stories of faces that don’t fit, of unembraced outliers moved to the door. For a year now, Bairstow has been on the outside looking in, not entirely fairly shunted around, a victim in some respects of his own versatility. Ahead of a monstrous year of top-end Test cricket, they need him back in the room. This is no ordinary cricketer.