Although many people have already made up their mind about England’s second ginger ninja, I’ve received more guest articles about Jonny Bairstow than any other cricketer in recent weeks. Therefore, I suspect this debate hasn’t quite run its course. Here’s Mark Cohen with the case for the defence …
The conclusion of England’s mammoth tour of India felt like the end of some dystopian cricketing odyssey. From a personal experience, one of the few bright spots in these long, cold, dark months of lockdown has been tuning into the radio to follow events in the subcontinent, despite the disappointing results.
As my long-suffering girlfriend (currently a very smug India fan) will testify, one of the most spoken utterances in our flat has been “OK Google, play TalkSport 2”, quickly followed by an anguished sigh as I hear of yet another feeble England batting return.
These past two months will have given plenty for England’s players, coaches and support staff, to analyse. Whilst some of the squad now head straight into another IPL, others will return home and ruminate before the summer. Throughout all of this, one of the names at the forefront of supporters’ minds will be Jonny Bairstow.
It’s fair to say that Bairstow had an up and down time in India – both in his own form and his position in the order. With time to process the data, the England setup must realise that the two things are mutually inclusive and you cannot expect a player to perform when he is parachuted into the Test arena to bat at an unfamiliar number 3 spot, before then asking him to flick back to T20 mode at number 4.
It’s no coincidence that Bairstow finally fired in his familiar ODI opening position. Despite failing in the third and final match with a solitary 1, scores of 94 and 124 in the first two games secured him a man-of-the-series award and have reinforced his credentials at this level.
I have always been a fan of Jonny’s bullish, no-nonsense approach, both in his technique and temperament. When in full flow, he is one of the cleanest strikers of a ball in world cricket. Bairstow’s return to form should serve as a stark reminder of his abilities at the international level, even beyond the limited over formats.
There has been plenty written and said about whether Bairstow’s technique holds up at Test level. The strong bottom-handed grip that serves him so well in the white ball game unfortunately tends to leave a red ball-shaped gap between bat and pad in test cricket. The brief foray into Test cricket by ODI opening partner Jason Roy has served as a cautionary tale, but Bairstow has shown plenty in 74 test matches that he has what it takes.
But it’s not just a technical thing with Jonny. The donning of the Test match whites now seems bring with it a hesitancy and indecisiveness that was nowhere to be seen in his earlier career. Having served his arduous quarantine period in an Indian hotel to play in the final two Tests, poor Jonny scratched around at the crease to bag a pair and only ended up getting off the mark once in the whole series.
The man sadly seems to be carrying the air of a player who has lost his way in the Test match game. And who can blame him? Bairstow has occupied five different positions from number 3 all the way down to number 8, with the selectors trying to find the best place to harness his talent. When batting at 5, 6 and 7, his numbers are markedly better, but the selectors have not given him an extended run in any of these positions.
Having been dropped from the test team following a disappointing 2019 Ashes series, selector Ed Smith predicted Bairstow would “come back stronger for having had a bit of time away from the Test set-up”, before immediately calling him back up to the side to cover for Ollie Pope in the first Test against South Africa at the end of 2019. Short of replicating his heroics with Ben Stokes from the previous tour, Bairstow surely knew that he would be back out of the side again soon enough. Scores of 9 and 25 were a far cry from his magnificent 150 in the same country three years previously.
Anyone who has read Bairstow’s incredibly moving autobiography A Clear Blue Sky, will know about his capacity to overcome huge personal challenges. I don’t doubt his determination to force his way back into Test match contention, but he certainly needs to be rewarded with a consistent middle order batting spot.
Some might argue that such is perennial fragility of England’s middle order these days, it does not matter what number you come to the crease. The commitment to rotating players in and out of their Covid bubbles has also somewhat scuppered any consistency in selection. However, Jonny hasn’t exactly been given the “time away” that was needed.
As the dust settles following the conclusion of this arduous tour, and Bairstow joins up with the IPL’s Sunrisers Hyderabad, there have been precious few bright spots to recall. His return to form in the ODIs was at least one of them.