As someone who once argued that Jonny Bairstow was the second best batsman in the England team, and perhaps the most dominant batsman in county cricket since Graeme Hick, I was beginning to feel a tad silly a week or so ago. England’s batting line-up is notoriously porous, yet poor Jonny couldn’t even make the XI at Kandy.
It has been a weird year or so for the ginger nutter. He’d firmly established himself as England’s first choice keeper, played reasonably well in the Ashes despite the carnage around him, but he couldn’t make Eoin Morgan’s exciting ODI team. It bothered him. It bothered a lot of other people too. And when he finally got his chance, bizarrely at the top of the order, he seized it with both hands.
There was just one problem. Part of Jonny’s success in white ball cricket came from making room outside off-stump and driving pugnaciously through extra cover and cover point. And this did his test form no favours at all. Jonny soon lost his red ball rhythm, didn’t do himself justice against India, and then his injury problems got worse. People started to doubt him as a result.
Jonny seems like a sensitive soul which didn’t help matters either. Jos Buttler’s recall seemed to unnerve him, especially when people suggested that the inferior gloveman should take his preferred job. What people forgot is that Bairstow has always scored more runs (or at least he used to) when he had a second string to his bow. He’d even talked candidly about how keeping took the pressure off his batting.
When Jonny hurt himself playing football at the beginning of this Sri Lanka tour – honestly, why do they insist on doing this? – things went from bad to worse. Foakes came in. Foakes batted brilliantly. And Foakes kept with a silkiness that England fans haven’t seen since the days of Bob Taylor (or perhaps Jack Russell). Suddenly Jonny was out of the team – a victim of England’s plethora of all-rounders.
Fortunately for Jonny, however, England’s inability to identify a decent number 3 – the experiments with Moeen and then Stokes at first drop were as short lived as they were illogical – suddenly presented an opportunity. With Sam Curran injured, and the management completely unconvinced by Joe Denly (the man Ed Smith had hoisted on them) Bairstow was recalled to hold the poisoned chalice.
It didn’t look like a good fit at all. Jonny has rarely batted 3 for Yorkshire let alone England. He said he didn’t want to bat there either. He averages just over 40 batting at 6 & 7 in test cricket but only 29 at number 5. If he couldn’t master third drop, how was Jonny going to master first drop?
What’s more, although Root and Bayliss talked up Jonny’s ability to bat 3 in the buildup to this game – even though they’d never advocated batting him there before (even when he didn’t have the gloves) – they were blatantly just throwing shit at the wall and hoping some of it would stick at this point. The truth is that nobody in the entire world suggested Jonny had the technique and temperament to bat 3 in test cricket until there was an unexpected vacancy and Jonny was the next man up.
Fortunately things have worked out rather nicely though. Three things worked massively in Bairstow’s favour in Colombo. A) The pitch was slow and offered the bowlers no assistance, B) seam bowlers are basically redundant in Sri Lanka, and C) the opposition’s attack has less teeth than the 100 year old French woman who thought Angel Merkel was Macron’s wife last week. Jackpot!
The result was a heart warming century that really shoved it to the critics – although, to be honest, I’m not really sure anyone ever doubted Jonny’s quality as a batsman. Either way it was a personal triumph, and I’m delighted that a batsman I enjoy watching so much is back in the team and doing well.
There is, however, one small potential problem. I still don’t think that Jonny is a test No.4 let alone a test No.3. He doesn’t play with particularly soft hands, his defence isn’t as watertight as it should be, and I really think he’ll struggle big time against quality fast bowling when the ball is hard and doing a bit. If England’s top 3 in the Ashes is Jennings, Burns, and Bairstow, then Australia will be licking their lips.
That’s why, although I’m delighted that Jonny has exorcised his demons, I’m worried that this century will do England little good in the long-run. It’s a bit like Jennings’s ton in Galle. It kids people that a solution to a problem has been found when I strongly suspect that it hasn’t.
Therefore, in the interests of context, and in honour of The Moaner, I feel duty bound to repeat what I said after Keaton’s personal triumph two weeks ago. This is a unique tour, played in very unique conditions, that England are unlikely to encounter anywhere else in the world. It’s basically trial by spin against some really average spinners. In fact, it’s more a battle against the heat than a battle of skill and technique.
This innings is, therefore, sadly meaningless. It won’t count for anything when Keaton has been dismissed first ball and Jonny’s facing the second ball of the Ashes in nine month’s time. Until Bairstow has tightened up his method, and proved he can play quality pace bowling against a hard ball, I’ll continue to doubt that he’s anything other than a fish out of water at 3.
But what today did prove, however, is that England simply must find a role for Bairstow in the side. He is the second best batsman we have. And he deserves to play in the spot where he’s most effective: at number six or possibly number five now that he’s playing as a specialist batter.
The problem with doing anything else is that it makes Root look like a hypocrite. The skipper, who is the best player in the side, refuses to bat 3 because he feels comfortable at 4 and promoting him to first drop somewhat diminishes his effectiveness. So how can he possibly ask Jonny, who is the second best batsman in the side, to move up from 5 or 6 in the long-term? It’s an even bigger jump and it just doesn’t add up. England can’t afford to diminish either their first or second best players at the moment.
The bottom line is that England can’t avoid making the hard decisions for long. At some point they’ll be forced to purge one of their favourite sons from the XI. Bairstow, Buttler, Stokes, Moeen, and now Foakes, are all middle-order players best suited to batting at 6 or 7. They could bat 5 (at a push) but first drop is a step too far. The problem, of course, is that Stokes bowls, Moeen bowls, and Jos Buttler is the apple of Ed Smith’s eye. So where does that leave Jonny?
The truth is that England can have their cake and eat it on these flat pitches against club standard spinners. But let’s not pretend these games are telling us anything about England’s prospects next summer, or our prospects in any series played in England, New Zealand, South Africa, or Australia in the future. And to be honest, I’m a little mystified as to why so many pundits seem to think the No.3 issue has suddenly been solved. It’s a bit premature don’t you think?
In celebrating Jonny’s big day, the commentators went through the record books to identify the last England No.3 (other than Trott) to make a century overseas. The answer was Ravi Bopara. He was the future once. He scored three hundreds against the West Indies. And then Australia turned up.