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May 2022 will see the 10th anniversary of Jonny Bairstow’s Test debut against West Indies, when a precociously talented 22-year-old, the son of a Yorkshire great, strode out to bat at No. 6 at the Home of Cricket with lofty expectations.
Initially vulnerable against the short ball, Bairstow was jettisoned after three shaky Tests. In a way, those three Tests act as a microcosm of what has followed: well-founded optimism supplanted by Bairstow, for one reason or another, falling short of those expectations.
His Test career can broadly be broken down into four distinct parts: peripheral player who found himself in and out of the side (2012-2014), one of the side’s best batters (2015-2017), a decline that coincided with his promotion to the top of the white-ball order (2018-2019), and emergency problem-solver (2021).
There have been mitigating factors among those times of struggle: he’s continuously been moved up and down the order, been given the gloves and then had them taken away from, and then been sent out in pyjamas to thrash it up top with Jason Roy – it’s a tough ask to back up white-ball adventure with red-ball restraint. But it’s worth focusing on the prolific couple of years as a Test batter that started with his recall in the 2015 Ashes and it’s worth remembering how that call-up came about.
Bairstow had laid down an unignorable case for a recall in the County Championship in a way few English batsmen have this century, churning out runs at a Bradmanesque level of magnitude and consistency. Across two County Championship-winning seasons with Yorkshire in 2014 and 2015, Bairstow racked up 1,755 runs at an average of 67.50, hitting nine centuries in 22 matches. And after his breakthrough Test hundred in South Africa at the start of 2016, he was brilliant.
That calendar year he racked up 1,470 runs at an average just shy of 60 – a record for a keeper-batsman. In 2017 he reached a career peak of seven in the ICC Test batting rankings and was arguably a must-pick for any hypothetical world Test XI as that side’s gloveman.
Then, for reasons that have been examined elsewhere, the returns began to drop off before he was eventually discarded after the 2019 Ashes. His previous 17 Tests had seen him hit 727 runs at an average of 24.23.
Fast-forward two years and despite only playing two first-class matches for Yorkshire since that Ashes series, Bairstow, somehow, has played every Test he’s been available for in 2021. He averages 25.07 from eight matches with a best of 57. Going back to the start of 2019, that average falls to 21.40 from a substantial sum of 18 Tests – in 34 innings, he’s reached 50 on three occasions.
How did we get here? It’s partly the memory of the player he once was, almost like a drunken mind blissfully recalling an ex, where their faults are overran by recollections of better times; thoughts that are not unfounded, but neither are they totally grounded in reality. When England are so short on batting options, there’s logic in recalling one of the three active international cricketers on their books who can reasonably claim to have been a world-class Test batsman for a brief moment in time – Bairstow deserves a longer rope than most.
It’s also due to the chaotic nature of England’s itinerary in 2021, one that has, for the most part, deprived Root of his best XI. There was logic in recalling Bairstow for the Sri Lanka tour, a country where he has thrived before, though there was less logic in sending him home for the first two Tests of the subsequent India tour.
His continued presence in the side for the return India series, however, was remarkably unimaginative. There were early signs of optimism as he made a succession of starts with a tweaked technique that gave greater protection to his off stump, but he again look susceptible to the most simple plan in the book – bowling straight. It was just that this time, he was getting done lbw, rather than bowled.
Another summer has come and gone and while Bairstow should remain an option as a gloveman should Jos Buttler’s form deteriorate, his time as a specialist batsman must surely come to an end. That being said, it remains a great shame that it hasn’t worked out. This is a batsman who has, while never simultaneously, been up there among the best red- and white-ball batsmen in the world. How many English players over the last 20 years can realistically make that claim? His first-class record in the County Championship is vastly superior to those of Root and Stokes, two far more accomplished Test batsmen. But now is surely the time to draw a line under his tenure in the Test side as a batsman; surely it’s time for someone else, anybody else, to be afforded the kind of backing Bairstow has had recently.
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