Ben Jones analyses what’s going on with Bairstow’s Test method.
Life is about sacrifice. It’s about looking at what you have, what you want to have, and understanding what you need to give up in order to achieve it.
English cricket feels like it’s made something of a sacrifice in the last few weeks. All that joy, all that feverish tension and euphoric release that sustained it through the World Cup, the memories made, will never leave the collective folklore of the game. It was a carnival, a reward for a cycle of investment in a style of play Yet it was never going to come without some form of penance. Everything has a price, every weight a counter-weight.
We’ve seen it throughout the Test, in the loose techniques and tired, scrambled shot selection. But nowhere is it quite so obvious as in the recent career of Jonny Bairstow.
After returning to the Test team in 2015, Bairstow was on one. He banged the door down in county cricket for two seasons, replete with his new exaggerated high backlift, and refused to not be picked for England. Eventually, James Whittaker relented, and for two years Bairstow didn’t look back. Averaging 49.78 across 24 matches, he went from the outsider to the heartbeat of the team. The list of those to score more heavily than him in that time is a Who’s Who of Test batting: Warner, Smith, Williamson, Kohli, Root, Cook. He was elite.
And then, England decided to make him ODI opener. He tweaked his stance, standing further to the legside and opening himself up to enhance his offside attacking play, and it worked perfectly. He dominated. The promotional video for England’s World Cup campaign – “Express Yourself”, a spectacular piece of work which rightly went viral – included a short section where Bairstow played his cut-come-drive with a bat photoshopped into a sort of lightsaber. It felt apt, and a great choice to define Bairstow’s game. It’s an iconic shot of modern white ball cricket.
But in red ball, that drive is loose. With more swing and seam around, it becomes considerably more dangerous – when the ball is doing anything through the air or off the pitch, the lightsaber glows rather more dimly. Typically, when Test players drive at balls on their stumps, they average 22.76 runs per dismissal; for Bairstow, that figure 6.71. Arguably his most important and productive shot is becoming too high-risk to play.
That tweak to his stance isn’t an isolated incident, of course. The backlift has gone from extremely low to extremely high; he’s opened up his stance to increase his access to the offside, and to stop him falling over to off. Part of the reason Bairstow succeeds in almost everything he tries is because he is willing to try things, and to change to fundamental aspects of his batting. It’s admirable. It’s also why he can sometimes end up chasing his tail, in a technical sense.
Nip-backers, which his initially low backlift seemed designed to negate, have now become kryptonite to him. Before being promoted to that white ball opening berth, he was dismissed every 35 in-seaming deliveries he faced in Test cricket. Since then, that’s fallen to 22.8, and an average of just 8.66. It is difficult to sustain a career as an elite batsmen when your weakness is quite so obvious. Since taking that role at the top of the ODI order, Bairstow averages 6.83 against balls on his stumps. It is a fatal flaw.
And yet, and yet – it’s a different story when the ball is white. Against those same deliveries in ODIs he averages 47 in the last two years. His technique was changed to succeed in white ball cricket, and it he’s done just that. But his technique is now failing him in red ball. He has sacrificed Test stability for ODI greatness.
He’s a funny old duck, Bairstow. His career arc is the stuff of redemptive, cinematic scope, overcoming personal tragedy and professional failure to force his way back into the England Test side, to become arguably the most impressive batsman within that side. His story, whilst not relatable in the most straightforward sense, is one which invites empathy easily. In the minds of most cricket fans, there is a lot of inherent goodwill for Jonny Bairstow.
Yet he is a man seemingly defined against things, in conflict with people and ideas, in his mind constantly butting up against obstruction that he simply doesn’t deserve, in his eyes. He drives himself through responding to criticism. That criticism doesn’t even have to be real to be effective; if he was a superhero, he’d be Strawman.
Perhaps this will be just the latest in a string of critiques that Bairstow will take to heart, reflect on, then emphatically prove to be wrong by scoring lots and lots of runs. Perhaps he’s just another tweak to his stance away from hitting his stride in red ball again. Perhaps a bumper Ashes summer is but weeks away. It’s all very possible, because Bairstow has rarely failed for long, at anything. However, right now he is a walking, talking, snarling fable for how when life gives you lemonade, you best believe there are some lemons coming shortly after.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.