On the eve of their first Test of 2013, Vithushan Ehantharajah looks at the extraordinary talents of England’s ‘other’ Yorkshire tyro, Jonny Bairstow.
Jonny Bairstow was suited, booted and a little weary when he sat down with AOC last November on the eve of England’s departure for India. What had seemed at first like ambivalence towards a media engagement the night before the team were due to fly out soon revealed itself as exhaustion: “I was up at 5am this morning to get to Manchester airport this morning, so sorry if I’m a bit tired.” An unnecessary apology but a moment not uncharacteristic for the humble 23-year-old.
One thing you get straight away from Bairstow is his onus on family; as we settled in to talk about his career, every high was tinged with pride at being able to share his successes with them. Mention of his debut at Lord’s, against the West Indies in the spring of 2012, brought a satisfied smile: “It was a special occasion for me and my family – one of the best days of my life.” And when, in the midst of that India tour, he learned of a family illness, he returned home to stay with them throughout the limited overs series that concluded it. Called in to replace him was a young Yorkshire boy called Joe Root, who is now garnering most of the superlatives that were recently landing at the feet of Bairstow.
It’s an unfortunate turn of events. First his 118 in a tour match against a Mumbai A side was trumped by Samit Patel’s combined 104 against India A in the previous warm-up match and his left-arm spin option. Then, filling in for Ian Bell in the second Test, Bairstow managed only nine runs to give the management an excuse to look past him for the final match, and on to Root, who duly took his chance at No.6.
Now, since India, his role in New Zealand has been peripheral thanks largely to a short-form wicketkeeper conundrum that England and Ashley Giles have still to crack; with Jos Buttler getting the nod behind the stumps, Bairstow watched England’s 2-1 ODI series win from the sidelines.
All of which made his comments at Lord’s that November evening all the more prescient. “You go from being happy that you’ve made the most of an opportunity to dealing with your heightened profile very quickly,” Bairstow recalled when we brought up his astounding ODI debut – a matchwinning 41 off 21 balls to win a Duckworth-Lewis-manipulated encounter at the end of India’s disastrous tour of England in 2011. When AOC thanked him for brightening up a wet, drab evening in Cardiff, he assured us he found nothing drab about such a “memorable” day.
“I was thrilled to win the game but the next couple of days were pretty special; people were suddenly taking an interest in me and asking me for interviews. It was a nice feeling. The flipside was that my profile rose and people who didn’t know too much about me started to pay a bit more attention to how I was playing for Yorkshire. That in turn brought more comment on what I was doing for the Lions as well. It’s more noticeable when you make the step up to play internationally; I mean, this was all from one knock. In any instance you can suddenly be shunted into the spotlight.”
Watching Bairstow bat, one thing that immediately stands out – alongside the rugged power and punchy economy of stroke – is his ability to read a situation. And while such a skill can be learned through trial and error, it is also essential and inherent in the best players. As the son of the late England and Yorkshire keeper David, cricket courses through Jonny’s veins. It is little wonder that even as a teenager he was renowned for his maturity and game-sense.
So far most of Bairstow’s innings in an England shirt have come in limited overs matches – and even then, only six in ODI blue. But his most telling statement to date as an international cricketer came in August’s Lord’s Test against South Africa, in which England relinquished the series and, with it, the ICC Test mace. His first-innings 95 there, repelling the rampant trio of Steyn, Morkel and Philander while England swayed on the ropes and the absent shadow of Kevin Pietersen loomed ever larger over proceedings, is one of the great non-hundreds ever seen at the ground. It marked him out as a player of exceptional skill and substantial courage.
And all the more so considering the pre-match narrative revolved around Bairstow’s perceived shortcomings against the short stuff. The idea had developed during his debut series, when Kemar Roach and Fidel Edwards went at Bairstow with a series of half-trackers that, in his desire to take them on, had resulted in a couple of ungainly dismissals. Some sections of the media duly settled on their story. What did he make of his first exposure to a nation scrutinising his technique?
“It wasn’t necessarily an easy period, but it was something I did go away and think about. It was the first time that a fault of mine had been put in the public spotlight. Obviously people have to write things and you’re going to get talked about, whether you’re doing well or not. But it was an issue that I went away and worked on, and came back stronger at the end of the summer for Lord’s.”
Stronger indeed. But it wasn’t just that cussed, defiant 95; second time around, chasing an improbably 346, his brisk run-a-ball 54 dared partisan onlookers to dream. In the end, England fell short, but Bairstow had made his mark.
With the dust settling on a series defeat to a South Africa side, Bairstow’s emergence in whites was genuine cause for optimism. In all forms, that middle-order berth appeared to be his. Yet here we are, on the eve of England’s second series since their fall from the Test pinnacle and with Bairstow watching from the stands. With plenty of time on his side, it’s too soon to consider him a ‘nearly man’, even if his tribulations are beginning to extrapolate that narrative.
Towards the end of our conversation, we’d got on to talking about his method, specifically about reacting to scoreboard pressure in the one-day game. “You’ve got to be quite positive in your mind, but at the same time you need to be comfortable playing out a few dot balls, knowing that you can catch up further down the line.” Bairstow may be playing out a maiden or two just now. But it won’t be long before he’s again putting bat to ball in an England shirt.