Jonny Bairstow seems to divide opinion as much, maybe more than any current England cricketer (at least since KP), but is that fair?
I have read his book ‘a clear blue sky’ – it is brilliant. Jonny is a fascinating character, and an amazing talent. He has no doubt been impacted by his father’s death. This is hardly unique, and something many of us can empathise with even without the burden of the public glare.
Jonny is passionate about being a wicket-keeper, it is engrained in him, and his dedication to improve was phenomenal. He is not the only cricketer to feel better balanced when he has more than one string to his bow.
What strikes some most is that it has always been an uphill battle for Jonny. There has always been some form of hurdle to overcome. He made his Test debut in 2012 against the Windies as a specialist batsman, and after getting out to a short ball was promptly written off by the press. He went on to make 95 and 54 against an exceptional South Africa pace attack in the same summer in his 4th Test match. These runs came against Morkel, Steyn, Philander and Kallis – those kind of runs, against that attack, are signs of a pretty special player at 23 years old.
Admittedly he didn’t quite kick on, and after the disastrous Ashes tour of 2013/14 he was dropped (he stepped in for the injured Matt Prior for the last 2 Tests). When Prior was forced to retire in 2014 Jonny was overlooked and Jos Buttler got the nod.
Jonny went away and worked hard on his game. He eventually won a recall in October 2015 to play against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi after England has ground Buttler into the floor.
Between 13th October 2015 when he was injured playing football in Sri Lanka, in October 2018, Jonny played 42 Test matches; only Root and Cook scored more runs. No other England player scored 2000 runs during that period.
During this period, he scored Test match hundreds in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand as well as at home. He also kept wicket during this period of time, and predominantly batted at no 6 or 7 (although he was pressed up to 5 in the Ashes in Australia).
His wicket-keeping was not Test match class when he first took the gloves in the 13/14 Ashes. However, there are many keepers who had sharp learning curves; Ian Healy and Matt Prior both got a very hard time when they debuted, but hard work turned them into very fine keepers, and both kept to their respective country’s best spin bowlers.
This last point is important, the true test of a keeper, we are often told, is their ability stood up to the stumps. With this in mind I have taken a look at England Test match keepers since the great Jack Russell made his debut (minimum 20 Tests).
Measuring a keeper by stumping along is not a fair measure, but I was interested to see that Jonny’s record is comparable to that of Jack Russell. Whilst Stewart and Prior are both ahead, they also kept wicket in a lot more Test matches, and they are only marginally ahead.
Looking at the same group of keepers, here are their stats as batsman, when keeping in Tests:
Of this group, only Matt Prior averages more than Jonny Bairstow as a Test match wicket keeper since 1988. Only Stewart and Prior have more 100’s and much like stumpings, they have had many more games with the gloves.
Moving away from the statistics, I was considering how Jonny reacted to losing the gloves in Sri Lanka in 2018. He was certainly portrayed as being stroppy, not only by the media, but also by the various ECB sources. I remember thinking at the time that he was not overly supportive of Foakes, but I understood where he was coming from.
Summer 2020 and Stuart Broad was left out of the Test XI. He went on to do a live interview on Sky TV where he quite strongly stated his views about ‘his’ place in the Test side. Largely this was well received, the columns filled up with people praising Stuart’s desire to hang onto his place, and his passion.
I don’t think what Jonny did in 2018/19 and what Stuart did in 2020 were different, they are two passionate and proud men who quite rightly were hurting at losing their respective roles in the team.
It was around this time in 2018 that Rob Key began the rhetoric that Jonny should bat at no3. In this debate Jonny seems to be a victim of his own ability. Recently David ‘Bumble’ Lloyd has started a new discussion suggesting that Jonny should open. I recently asked both (neither replied), and ‘cricket twitter’ in general why Jonny always gets suggested as the one to shuffle around the order, and not Jos. The overwhelming response was that Jos could only bat at 6 or 7 in Test cricket, he is not good enough to bat elsewhere, but Jonny might be.
Not only is Jonny a victim of his ability, he is a victim of his versatility. He was pushed as high as no5 to cover other’s weaknesses in the Test team during that 42 Test run, but when Root is asked to bat at No3 he is not keen.
There is no doubt that Jonny did develop a serious technical flaw in his batting by the end of summer 2019, and it was quite correct to give him some time off at the end of the World Cup and Ashes Summer. (It was also entirely logical that England would want to look at the best keeper in the World in Ben Foakes.) This would allow Jonny time to catch up with his family and work on his batting technique … only this did not happen. Jonny travelled to New Zealand as part of a one-day trip, then hung around in the Test series because England did not pick Foakes, instead they picked Buttler and no back up for when he was injured. Jonny then headed to South Africa, where he was a late replacement to play as a batsman when Pope was taken ill… not much time for a rest.
Jonny is not the only cricketer England have managed poorly of late, there are a few (Mark Wood and Jofra Archer especially). Since the advent of the Ed Smith/Ashley Giles axis there have been some very poor decisions.
We are one year away from our next Ashes attempt in Australia … of the likely batsman only Root and Stokes have played a Test in Australia. Root still awaits a 100 after 17 innings in Australia, Stokes has one from 2013 (Jonny has one from 2017/18)
It is also worth remembering that Jonny Bairstow is 31 years old, and one of the fittest cricketers in the world. Alec Stewart played 107 Test matches after he turned 31, scoring another 11 Test match centuries.
However, if this is the end of Jonny Bairstow’s test career, he should be remembered and respected as a genuine challenger to Matt Prior and Alec Stewart in the modern era of England keeper batsman.