Today, new writer Tom Chambers discusses Jonny Bairstow’s inevitable return to England’s Test side. Will Zak Crawley be the man to make way? It’s far from clear cut.
Brendon McCullum made a rod for his own back when speaking to the BBC’s Test Match Special team back in December. When asked about a certain Yorkshireman’s eventual return from injury the New Zealander said, “As soon as he’s fit he’s back in the side, no doubt. But let’s work that out down the line.”
With the first Ashes test due to start at Edgbaston in just four months’ time, the prospective return of Jonny Bairstow is looming larger by the day. McCullum does not seem like a man capable of going back on his word, so just who will he decide to leave out now that Bairstow’s return is guaranteed? The collective and individual performances of England’s Test team in Pakistan and New Zealand this winter have made that decision possibly the most difficult and important of McCullum’s tenure so far.
A quick glance at the numbers from Bairstow’s golden summer last year offers a clear reason of why England’s Test head coach is so keen to find a place in his team for the 33-year-old. But McCullum’s England are not a team that worships at the alter of batting averages and run rates. This is a team of positive energy, of attitude, of ‘vibes’ – and therein lies the problem. The current group of players have created an almost perfect professional environment, trying to squeeze more productivity out of them could easily have the opposite effect.
Every England supporter has asked themselves the question of who Bairstow will come in for and it seems that nobody can quite agree. The prospect of Bairstow slotting back into his role at number five in the order is a non-starter. Having scored an accumulated 548 runs over the course of his last six innings with a frankly ridiculous strike rate of 98.77, Harry Brook has not just built a case for keeping his place in the middle order, he has fortified it with high walls and bunkers and trenches. Don’t even try it Jonny.
For a while it had seemed as though the easiest option was for Bairstow to take Ben Foakes’ place in the team and either hand the gloves to Ollie Pope or wear them himself. But having made a succession of vital contributions with the bat from his position in the lower middle order, Foakes has become the figurative keystone in England’s ‘Bazball’ redemption arc. The Surrey wicketkeeper’s outstanding glovework and unique ability to stand up to the stumps for the bowling of all but the nippiest of England’s seamers are also qualities not to be overlooked. The team just seems more balanced, more nuanced, with Foakes as part of it.
When Bairstow makes his return to this team it is likely going to be in a different role to the one he vacated after suffering a freak ankle injury on the third hole at the Panaal golf course back in September. Could we see the Stokes/McCullum thinktank produce its most audacious move yet and send a middle order berserker in to open the batting? It’s a tantalising thought and one that will give Zak Crawley sleepless nights as he reflects on his struggles in Mount Maunganui and Wellington.
Crawley is a curious phenomenon. He routinely wanders back to the England changing room with his bat under his arm having contributed very little to England’s total, but my word does he look good in the short time he’s out there. Perhaps Crawley is the most ‘vibes’ cricketer in the most ‘vibes’ cricket team; a walking talking lava lamp – integral to setting just the right mood but offering little practical benefit. But in the clear light of day, this is the England cricket team in 2023 and if you’re not regularly scoring three figures at a strike rate of 85.00 then you’re bringing us all down, man – just ask Alex Lees.
Bairstow has pedigree opening the batting for England in ODI’s, including during England’s victorious World Cup campaign in 2019. In that tournament Bairstow averaged 48 with a highest score of 111 and let’s face it, since McCullum took the reins, England have been approaching Test matches as if they were being played with a white ball.
In many ways the Bairstow question is a good problem to have. There are plenty of teams in world cricket who would like the option of fielding a batter who scored more than 1000 test runs last year. Only in English cricket could the return of someone like that be seen as a problem. It’s reminiscent of the early 2010’s when the biggest issue was that Ian Bell didn’t convert his fifties into hundreds quite as regularly as every other batter on the team. As McCullum would go on to say in his chat with the BBC: “It’s a much better place to be than scrambling around for blokes!”
By confirming the safety of Jonny Bairstow’s place in the line-up (injury permitting) heading into this summer’s Ashes series, the head coach of England’s test team has backed himself into a corner. But then again, that’s just how he likes it – now he can come out swinging.
Taking Crawley’s opening spot is the only sensible option as things stand.
However I have a feeling Stokes won’t make it through the Ashes. Pretty sure if it wasn’t as Ashes summer, he’d already be off for knee surgery.
Hopefully Bairstow will have to earn his place through some knocks showing he’s back in touch. He’s opened with some success in test matches before, noticably in Sri Lanka where he showed some stickability, so making room for him instead of Crawley, the only major batting issue at the moment, would not be an issue, as there’s no doubt he buys into the philosophy.
In the short term what worries me is talented players who don’t buy in naturally will be excluded for lesser ones who do and in the long term what happens after McCullum as coaches don’t have much of a lifespan these days. Stokes future as an all rounder must be in doubt too and in order to play him solely as a batter I fear for Foakes if Bairstow returns. These days it seems almost more important keepers can bat than keep, though this would mean the tail effectively started at 7, unless you play Woakes.
My starting Ashes X1 for what it’s worth;
Duckett, Bairstow, Pope, Root, Brook, Stokes, Woakes, Robinson, Wood, Leach, Anderson.
Broad and Archer on stand by as neither Anderson or Wood will play all 5 tests, as these days there’s so little time to recover between them.
Bairstow or Pope keeping wicket?
Bairstow. At least he’s used to it. Pope is a stop gap, even at county level.
We keep trying to solve problems that probably won’t arise, while ignoring some that we already have. Stokes is probably never going to be a genuine all rounder again, failing reconstructive surgery – but on a fast bowler’s left knee? He is a real batsman, of course, and has the defensive technique to apply himself at the top of the order. But whether he is going to be fit in the summer, after a spell in India, who knows. Bairstow is said to be coming along well in his rehab, but nobody can possibly know when he will be fit for competitive cricket, and whether that fitness will be sufficient to include wicket-keeping. Unless we know that he would be fit to keep, his pledged return has to be at the expense of another batsman. If Bairstow cannot keep, and has to come in for Foakes anyway, we are back with Pope behind the stumps, and without his brilliant contributions fielding close to the wicket. But this is way down the road of hypothetical questions not currently needing an answer. The one question that absolutely does need an answer is Crawley. Contrary to what is said above the line, he mostly does not even look good when he is out there. He does not know where his off stump is, and he also has no apparent ability to track the whereabouts of his front foot. So he always leaves the widest gate ever seen on an opening batsman in Tests (and consequently fails with unprecedented regularity). McCullum says that he needs a memory like a sieve, so as to be able to come back without being plagued by past failures, but what he actually has is a technique like a sieve. Enough, really.
For what it’s worth, I would probably drop Pope. I think asking Bairstow to open in a Test match, against possibly the best fast bowling attack in the world, is too much to ask. It’s a completely different kettle of fish to opening in ODIs or opening in a Test match in Sri Lanka where the pitches are slow, spinners reign, and Pat Cummins is nowhere to be seen.
Please don’t take this as a criticism of Pope – I think he’s a good player – but I don’t think the Aussies will fear him particularly at this stage of his career. And I’m still not convinced that he’s a natural 3. He’s much better suited to 5 or 6.
Therefore, I’d look to bring Jonny in at 3. I still don’t like him that high but it’s better than opening. The other alternative is to bring Jonny back at 4/5 and move Root up to 3.
You mean, drop Pope and keep Crawley? Insanity.
I would look to replace Crawley with another opener.
I really did think the Root debate was finally settled ! He is such a good, complete player, in my view you play him where he feels most comfortable (and where, highest score excepted, he has been most successful) and build the rest of the batting order around him. That position is 4 !
I have never liked Root at 3 to be fair. It would be an alternative for England but not one I’d like to see. My preference would be Jonny at 3 with another opener, whoever starts the season well in the championship, replacing Crawley. Maybe we could throw the Aussies a curveball and pick someone they don’t have a lot of video of? But it’s so tough.
I agree with that. 3 wouldn’t be my ideal spot for Jonny, but if he comes back fit and firing where else do you play him ? A friend of mine who opened at a high level has long advocated opening with him, but I’m not convinced. Crawley has surely run out of road. A beautiful player to watch, but he has too many obvious weaknesses which Australia will exploit – especially if they lateral movement but as to who replaces him we are no further forward than we were last time he was selected. At least we will have some red ball cricket before the first test to give anyone time to make a case.
According to his record on Cricinfo, Bairstow has never opened for England in a Test Match. He batted at 3 in Sri Lanka in 2018 and 2021, and also in a couple of Tests in the West Indies and the calamity in India when he made 3 ducks in 4 innings. Other than that, he did ok – one hundred and 6 scores between 28 and 52. Of course he was usually in before the 10th over, and often much earlier…
When Leach opened as nightwatchman, he scored 95. So let him open. Bring in Bairstow for Crawley but bat him at 6. And with Foakes at 8 and Broad and Robinson at 9 and 10 we no longer have a wobbly tail.
Either that or put Root back to opener again.
Can Jos Buttler come into the equation?
For me, Crawley stays…….he’s a right-handed cross between Hayden and Gower, power and elegance in equal measure.
I think I’d rather see Duckett make way. Scyld Berry has suggested Stokes open.
Crawley, Duckett, Bairstow, Lees
Pope, Root, Brook, Stokes, Lawrence
Anderson, Archer, Broad, Curran S., Overton x 2, Potts, Robinson, Stone, Woakes, Wood
Leach, Rehman, Parkinson, Jacks
That’s 25 players for consideration. Think that I’d pick……
……Crawley, Bairstow, Pope, Root, Brook, Stokes, Foakes, Broad, Robinson, Leach, Anderson……
…….with no bowler playing 5 Tests – Archer, Wood and Woakes to slot in, and I might give Rehman a test if he’s made good progress.
The main problem with Crawley in England – and why I wouldn’t pick him – is that he can’t handle lateral movement and, to be fair few can, genuine pace. This summer he will be facing both – with no doubt short pitched stuff as well – on some difficult playing services. After the weather we have had over the last year or so, I can see wickets deteriorating quite badly.
You are probably right………but let’s give him one more spring to practice and one more summer to succeed or fail.
Much depends on Stokes’ knee.
If he cannot bowl then he is, from everything I have read, the type of character to take one for the team which could result in him opening. Not ideal, but neither is balancing the Team without him bowling.
Irrespective of Stokes and Bairstow’s fitness I think Crawley’s time might be over. The idea of opening with Crawley and Duckett (I admit I do not see him being effective against top class pace on wickets with something in them) in the Ashes fills me full of horror.
Back on topic, if Bairstow is fit he will play – we owe him a massive thanks for giving Bazball some momentum. A batting order of;
is a great prospect – fitting them all in with Stokes and Foakes is a real challenge
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