CricViz analyst Ben Jones looks at some of the changes which have led to the England man’s improved form.
The Antigua Test may have been a relatively uneventful spectacle, but for Jonny Bairstow this week will live long in the memory. A second century in as many Test appearances, following up his SCG ton from earlier this year, was enough to dig England out of a tricky position on Day 1 of the first Test, and in doing so mark Bairstow’s emphatic return to red ball form.
Arriving at the crease with England in the mire at 48-4, Bairstow dug in alongside Ben Stokes, before a partnership of 99 with fellow gloveman Ben Foakes dragged England up towards a competitive total. On an individual level, 140 (259) levelled Bairstow’s third highest Test match score, but it also marked his return to something like his best form in red ball cricket.
Anyone familiar with the story of Bairstow’s journey to being probably England’s greatest ODI opener, and one of the best white ball batters in the world more generally, is aware of the technical sacrifices he made to do so. Up until the 2017 Champions Trophy, Bairstow was in a brilliant run of red ball form, performing admirably down the order. He then made a change to his stance at the crease, moving more legside and opening up the offside – it improved his scoring options tremendously in white ball cricket, but it left him highly vulnerable to balls on his stumps. In his next 30 Test matches, across the next four years, Bairstow averaged just over 6 runs-per-dismissal against balls on his stumps from the seamers.
His return to the Test side last summer came with a move towards more of an off stump guard, setting up further across his stumps and, in essence, covering them. It has had an effect on where he makes his runs. In the year or so leading up to being dropped, Bairstow scored the majority of his runs against pace through the offside, but since being recalled, that’s flipped – in the seven matches he’s played in that stretch, Bairstow has scored the majority of his runs against pace through the legside.
In particular, he has opened up the quadrant of the ground – behind square on the legside – to a level unprecedented in his Test career. More than 25% of his runs since the start of last summer have come in that zone, you would imagine as a consequence of his change in setup allowing for him to clip more deliveries into the legside, punishing errors of line from the bowlers more readily. It’s not a sexy scoring zone, but it is working for him.
However, the issue with straight deliveries has not disappeared; since the start of the 2021 summer, Bairstow is still only averaging 8.83 against those balls from seamers. However, what’s more significant is that while Bairstow may fall to them eventually, he has found ways of scoring off them against particular attacks. Never has he faced more balls on his stumps in a single innings than during his century in Antigua, clipping and straight driving those deliveries with aplomb. It’s unlikely that Bairstow will ever completely overcome this weakness – it is one of the most pronounced and prolonged in Test history – but the willingness to tweak his technique has already brought rewards.
Equally, a key part of Bairstow’s success since being recalled is not his record against pace, but against spin. 127 unbeaten runs have been accumulated in 225 balls, and while those runs have been scored on placid surfaces, they have been against world class spinners almost exclusively. In short form cricket, Bairstow has grown into one of the most naturally destructive spin hitters in the world, and while his red ball game is far more varied – he can rotate the strike and run the first one hard as much as the next bloke – he has the ability to go through the gears extremely quickly, as he showed in Sydney earlier this year. When he was thrown up the order in India there was an element of hope over expectation, but if any England player other than the captain has shown a ruthless streak against the spinners, it is Bairstow. It’s a decent base to build from.
Few people are suggesting that Bairstow will mange to get back to the highs of 2016, his undoubted peak as a long-form batsman, but there are encouraging signs that a slight change in role and approach will be enough for England to get consistent returns from a player who has often struggled to pin down a position.
During his barren run, Bairstow was often the subject of criticism which tipped over into unpleasant and often personal. The tone of discussion around him, and his fellow keeper Jos Buttler, was often different and less forgiving when compared to the other English batters who have struggled in Test cricket over the last few years. One explanation is that the white ball genius of these two players was perversely held against them, a sense that this was a zero-sum game and that they were spending their quality in other arenas. Questions of commitment and temperament were never far away.
While Buttler’s Test future now seems highly uncertain, Bairstow has rapidly re-established himself in the team. Nothing is set in stone as England continue under interim leadership, but it would take a remarkable run of poor form for the Yorkshireman to not be in the team at the start of the home summer.