Is Jonny Bairstow Done At Test Level?

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.

© Dave Morton

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.

Mark Cohen

10 comments

  • Test records as England wicket keeper.

    Jonny Bairstow: 48 Tests, 3028 runs, 5 centuries, average 38
    Jos Buttler 30 Tests, 1479, 1 century, average 34

    And which man do England consistently pick behind the stumps?

    Jonny has always scored more runs for England when playing as a keeper and batting at 6 or 7. He went on record a few times saying that he feels more comfortable when playing as an all-rounder. His average as a specialist batsman is just 27.

    And yet England took the gloves off Bairstow in order to justify keeping Buttler in the team. Jos wasn’t scoring enough runs so they gave him the gloves to lower the threshold of what was acceptable.

    I would not persevere with Bairstow as a pure batsman in Test cricket. He’s never delivered in this role. I would only ever consider him as a keeper. However, Ed Smith decided to sacrifice Jonny in order to bolster the signature selection of his tenure as National Selector. That’s how I’ve always seen it.

    Interestingly Buttler actually averages slightly more as a pure batsman than a keeper; therefore one would’ve thought that if they’re both playing then Jonny should be the one with the gloves. Nope!

    NB Although Buttler’s keeping has improved a little over the last year, Jonny was probably a better keeper (imho) than Buttler at the time that England made the switch. Jonny was always pretty solid (if not in the same class as some England keepers of the past) behind the stumps.

    • Neither Bairstow nor Buttler should have the gloves at test level – they should go to Ben Foakes. The question is whether Buttler justifies selection as a specialist batter (Bairstow certainly does not).

      • Have to agree. Foakes averages 31 with the bat and is a different class to Buttler and Bairstow with the gloves. And he’s younger than both.
        In fairness though I think any of the three of them would make a better chairman of selectors than Ed Smith!

        • I would also prefer Foakes. I just wanted to make the Butter / Bairstow point. Jonny was a good keeper-batsman for England. But he shouldn’t be considered as a pure batsman imho. Too many opportunities squandered.

  • No one disputes that Bairstow is an essential part of England’s limited overs setup, and in bringing his limited overs play into what is supposed to be a piece about whether or not he has a place in test ranks you are massively missing the point. In his last 66 test innings (a substantial sample by any reckoning) Bairstow averages 28, a lower average over more innings than the one that saw Joe Denly dropped. His recent failures (and even in the easier leg of the winter test tours in SL he could not manage even one 50+ score) are not a departure, they are a continuation of what can now be called a long term trend. I would expect England’s top three for the home summer to be initially Sibley, Burns, Crawley, while acknowledging that Burns in particular is vulnerable, and I would prefer to see the selectors looking at the likes of Tom Lammonby, Haseeb Hameed (currently undergoing a renaissance at Nottinghamshire), Hassan Azad and others rather than reverting to someone who in test match terms can only be described as a proven failure.

  • IMO it’s more where he bats in the order than if he’s also keeper. Batting at Nos. 6-7 he averages 37-38. It’s his record at Nos. 3-4 that drags his career down. He doesn’t have the technique of a top order batsman (especially at a time when conditions have been rigged in favour of bowlers). That one century he made at No.3 (against a poor and demoralised SL) did him much harm in the long term.

    I think is best position would actually be at No.5. His current record there isn’t good but it’s a very small sample size. However England’s conviction that Stokes must bat at No.5 rules that out.

  • When Bairstow first appeared on the scene his batting technique was adequate, unsullied by the white ball culture he later adopted with enormous success. It must be difficult when you find a style that you are ciomfortable with and clearly suits your temperament to reign that in and return to a less successful style that involves restraining your natural instincts. Stokes, Buttler and Pieterson before him have shown themselves capable of knuckling down at test level, but are clearly uncomfortable with it, so don’t be too hard on Bairstow, a naturally volatile character, for deciding his best bet is to follow his instincts. However, I think we have seen enough of Bairstow at test level to know he is not going to change and that should be enough for the selectors to say thanks but no thanks. There are better fish to fry in the cauldron of the test arena, both as batsman and wicketkeeper.

  • Of all the batsmen currently in England’s Test top six, and an approximately equal number just outside selection, only Root is an automatic choice in all conditions. Even Stokes struggled in India, and he would be next.

    I think most of us accepted Pope as the best of the new kids, but his struggles in India were painful to watch – actually worse than Bairstow’s because he suffered for longer, and actually looked the worst of all our batsmen. Conversely, Lawrence looked the best, Root apart. My own gut feeling is to stick with him, and Crawley, but will this summer give an indication of how they will fare in Australia? Probably not, though New Zealand’s excellent attack will certainly pose questions.

    You can imagine Sibley standing tall at the Gabba, alongside Crawley, perhaps, and Bairstow could do well at 3, given the chance. The wicket-keeping issue muddies the waters, but it should be Foakes, and definitely never Buttler. Stokes’s ‘natural’ position would be 6, if he’s going to bowl, but he would be fine – better than fine – at 3 or 5 if he is becoming an occasional bowler. In that case, the length of the tail becomes an issue, with potentially four number 10 / 11 batsmen in Archer, Leach, Broad and Anderson. Six out, all out.

    Then the compromises start. They pick Woakes or Curran ahead of Broad, perhaps, and Ali or Bess ahead of Leach, but it’s the wicket-keeping issue that gets fudged, and always has been, probably, since they started picking Jim Parks around 1960. Perhaps Bracey will get a chance. I have no idea what his keeping is like, but his batting looked good the one time I saw him on TV. At least we now have a coach who knows County Cricket intimately, unlike the fly-in fly-out Aussie.

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