Explosive, aggressive, fearless, at his best there are few better counter-attacking batsmen in world cricket than Jonny Bairstow. Twice an Ashes winner, ODI World Cup winner, there is a good chance come 2021 he may complete the set with a T20 World Cup title. It is a glittering resume, one the envy of many an international cricketer across the globe, but for Bairstow you can’t help but feel satisfaction is still lacking.
In 2016 only one cricketer in World Test Cricket scored more runs than Bairstow, with almost half of those runs coming at 7. Somewhat fittingly Joe Root scored 7 more that year. Just turned 27 with 38 caps to his name and an average of 41.27 the fiery Yorkshireman had firmly cemented his place as England’s wicketkeeper batsman, and been recognised with the same position in the ICC Test Team of the Year.
He had proven his worth on all types of pitch. 150 not out at Newlands, Stokes would get the plaudits, but Bairstow’s debut test century could not have been more emphatic. Two more big centuries on home pitches versus Sri Lanka, he scored runs against Pakistan before hitting three half centuries and other useful contributions in India when most of the rest of the batting line-up misfired.
In the heat of battle Bairstow refused to back down. His aggression became his trademark, always on the field, and occasionally and infamously off it. His ‘headbutt’ against Cameron Bancroft in a Walkabout pub was by all accounts nothing more than a strange but friendly greeting, a storm in a teacup, but one the Australian’s were all too keen to drag on.
His response, in a year where he was yet to score a test century, was typical. Peppered by the short ball, at the WACA Bairstow waited. 160-4 when he came to the crease, Starc, Hazelwood and Cummins were enjoying yet another day in a wicket-fuelled Australian summer. A 200 run partnership later, Malan and Bairstow had steadied the ship and put England within a good bowling performance from a pulling one back on foreign turf. Cutting, pulling, driving his way to his hundred, Bairstow’s back was against the wall but his response definitive.
Malan’s 140 would ultimately draw the plaudits, England’s subsequent blunt bowling attack the criticism, but it was Bairstow who had once again answered the critics in his most conclusive style.
Fast forward two centuries and three years later, Bairstow lies at a juncture. Out of the test side for a year, Buttler’s run of form towards the end of 2020 has left the wicketkeeper spot his, for now. Alongside him Sibley, Crawley and Root can all expect to play, with Dan Lawrence likely to get his test debut opening alongside Sibley. If he doesn’t a spot could open up as high as three with Crawley moved up to open.
In attack you would expect Broad, Anderson, Wood and Stone to contest two pace bowling spots with Curran or Woakes to bat at 8 and take the all rounder slot.
From the rest of the squad of sixteen, you’ll likely see two out of Moeen Ali, Dom Bess and Jack Leach form the basis of the spin attack, though it is not beyond the realms of possibility that all three could play and Woakes/Curran make way. That would leave one spot, potentially two up for grabs, likely as high as 3, 5 or 6. The candidates for this? Ben Foakes and Jonny Bairstow in a straight shootout.
Both have form in Sri Lanka, scoring centuries in the same series in late 2018, and both had good 2020s. Foakes averaged 75.66 in four Bob Willis trophy innings. Bairstow made a century versus Australia in his most recent 50 over performance, and 5 other half centuries through the limited over international calendar. The weight of Bairstow’s achievements in 2020 is perhaps the more heavy but at 27 Foakes has age on his side, and has waited his time.
Foakes may get the nod but Bairstow’s selection in the squad signals the door is still open. Whoever does play and takes their chance, will find opportunities come the summer. In Stokes the competition is immovable, but with Olly Pope the selectors will be keen to emphasise the number six spot must be earnt. In addition, one of the spinners will inevitably make way.
How we revisit this conversation in twelve months time will likely define Bairstow’s legacy. An international with patches of brilliance, or an England cricketer forcing his way into the debate for England’s all-time finest wicketkeeping batsman.