What could have been, six long years ago, had Jonny Bairstow didn’t take a long, envious look at England’s white ball reset (because no one was calling it back then), and decided, “you know what, I want a piece of that”.
In January 2016, Bairstow made its first Test Century in Cape Town, riding a wave of emotion in the week-long anniversary of his father’s death to add a remarkable 399-point stand with Ben Stokes on the flattest Newlands Bridge of the decade. For the remainder of that calendar year he was England’s leading Test batter, performing wicket-keeping duties as safety cover as he racked up 1,470 runs at 58.80 – a tally no Englishman other than Joe Root could top.
But even as he did, the sand shifted under the feet of England’s multi-format players. Amid England’s run to the World T20 final in 2016 and their dress rehearsal for the World Cup in the Champions Trophy the following summer, the feeling that something special was unfolding was unmistakable.
And Bairstow, for most of that initial period, was England’s white-ball super-sub, a man kept at arm’s length from the first XI, and almost pressured at times by Eoin Morgan to double his resolve to get into the team – a tactical treat -’em-mean who delivered so many irresistible displays of the white ball – including four centuries in six innings at the start of 2018 – that, as the World Cup final approached, he couldn’t quite simply no longer be left out. The compromise was his place in England’s Test plans.
Fast forward to Sydney in January 2022, and Bairstow was back in that same area of 2016 with England’s Lonely Century of an otherwise dismal Ashes tour. It was a campaign he hadn’t even been selected for in the first three games of the series, but once again he channeled his father’s spirit to work his way through the pain of a broken thumb and laying the groundwork. of England’s only non-defeat of the tour.
Now, with that same tight inevitability, he’s made two centuries of consecutive England games (three if you include a slightly fake Coolidge warm-up) and after years of drifting and frustration – including the removal of those beloved gloves , and enough ducks and scapegoats to create a petting zoo – it seems he’s displaced the defiant mindset that defined his now distant year of test mastery.
“I’m very passionate about playing for England and very passionate about Test cricket,” Bairstow said. “I’m absolutely delighted, it’s been a good start to the year and I hope it continues. Obviously I didn’t start in the Ashes but I had my chance and looked to take it. It has been a good preparation and to start this way in this series is fantastic.”
However, it didn’t look so fantastic amid the opening session of the series. Arriving as it did at a grim 48-4, Bairstow’s blow could not have come at a more invaluable moment for an England team in which he is once again treated as a senior player. In the other 8.2 overs until the lunch break, he and Ben Stokes had nine runs before a calculated tempo increase against Jayden Seales and Alzarri Joseph on the restart.
“It’s something that’s built into the game,” Bairstow said. “You know you can get into some tough places and it’s about staying out there as long as you can and grinding. That’s what we’re doing, we’ll be back tomorrow and grinding again. I have played quite a few test matches now so I’m excited to start the year this way. Hopefully we can start again. Let’s have a good year and see where we are at the end of it.
If England’s much-vaunted ‘red ball reset’ is to have any merit other than being a handy soundbite to buy ECB time while it works out exactly what it wants from Test cricket , then a player attitude reset within the existing -up set is a good place to start.
That’s not to say, however, that Bairstow has had a particularly bad attitude towards Test cricket in recent years. He simply had one priority – fully endorsed by the governing body that pays most of his salary – which was to become the best white ball hitter he could transform into.
If Bairstow had spent the years 2017 to 2021 twiddling his thumbs between Test engagements, then driving with flat feet and losing his poles every other innings through lack of enforcement, then the censorship that got presented to him would have been justifiable. But he did not do it. His technique suffered, in simplistic terms, from his commitment to throwing upside-down drives in the Powerplay to become, arguably, England’s most important ODI striker of all time.
For Jos Buttler is regularly labeled England’s white-ball GOAT – and Buttler has also had a lot more leeway in Test cricket, when his attempts to fill these increasingly polarized formats have fallen on hard times. But when England’s World Cup challenge risked stalling in the group stages, it was Bairstow’s last fight against England’s hundreds in a row, against India and New Zealand in two de facto KO, which energized a campaign that simply wouldn’t have been won without him.
Gratitude might have been a more appropriate response to his efforts – or at the very least a degree of understanding. But that’s not quite how his career has unfolded to date. This is partly due to his sometimes prickly behavior. He memorably put himself in his World Cup zone complaining that the media all wanted England to fail, and saw he’s apparently never better than when fighting to prove a point , maybe there’s merit in endlessly throwing bricks in his direction.
But Bairstow’s struggles to be everything for all formats reveals how futile this so-called reset will be unless there is a commitment from above to reframe the way England teams are selected, coached, managed. and thrown from one format to another without a pause for realignment. His return to the Test squad in the summer of 2021 epitomized chaos – a late night drive to Loughborough after a one hundred game for Welsh Fire, then – a Covid test later – his first red ball net during months, two days away from the Trent Bridge test. He made 29 and 30 on that occasion – performing precisely as well as anyone could have reasonably expected, no more and no less.
Much has been made of the ejection of James Anderson and Stuart Broad for this series, with much of the focus on the bowlers who will now lead the line, including Chris Woakes, whose new ball spell on Wednesday will be one of the most scrutinized of his career as a World Cup winner.
But Bairstow is another whose seniority is no longer hidden in plain sight. Eighty Test caps in ten years – although 49 of them as a wicket-keeper, seven as a No. 3 specialist, and the rest as something neither quite here nor there – have not more like such a small beer when the guy with 169 caps in 19 is taken out of the equation.
“I hit everywhere, didn’t I?” Bairstow added. “Hopefully it’s about getting a series of matches in one position. I think there was a period of hitting 14 or 15 different positions in 18 or 20 hits at a time. That’s is good to establish yourself in a role.”
The chance to do just that is precisely what Bairstow was denied for the early years of his career. You sense that the stubborn part of him wouldn’t want it any other way. Because at the age of 32, there is another glove laid before him. For him, as for England, this could be his cue to reclaim the standards he mislaid during that wild white-ball run.