England v India: Jonny Bairstow touching new heights in Ben Stokes era

From getting scrapped, to saving his career, to rising into the shape of his life – or someone else’s.

During England’s dreadful Ashes campaign, there was a very real possibility that Jonny Bairstow’s Test career was coming to an end.

It was recovered by a hundred with broken thumbs in Sydney. Six months and another four centuries later, he’s batting at a level unmatched by any other player on the planet. Nobody has more test runs or hundreds than the Yorkshireman in 2022.

Bairstow has saved England with each of the five tons he has made this year – all made after arriving at the bottom of the crease with fewer than 60 runs on the board and at least three wickets.

He is the patron saint of digging from the shtuck.

Bairstow’s last three hundred came in back-to-back games over the span of 20 days. Against New Zealand there was Trent Bridge’s blitz and Headingley’s counterstrike.

Against India there was the exhibition at Edgbaston, arguably the best shot of three given the level of difficulty and the way he moved up and down the aisles – just 13 runs from his first 63 balls, then a hurricane of 87 from the next 56, followed by a relaxation from 20 to six before eventually falling out for 106.

Just as Bairstow embraced England’s Bazball revolution, Bazball embraced Bairstow.

If his Test career had ended from the Ashes, there would have been a sense of unfulfillment.

Up until this Sydney Test, Bairstow had played 79 games and averaged fewer than 34. After debuting in 2012, his six Test tons up to that point had all come in a three-year span midway through his career. At his peak in 2016, Bairstow made 1,470 runs but had not surpassed 652 in any other year.

While Bairstow’s diminishing returns in the longer form coincided with his rise to become one of the world’s most feared white-ball batters, he was bewildered by England management in Test cricket.

Not only was he pushed off from every batting position between number three and eight, but he was repeatedly stripped of his wicketkeeper’s gloves and given back. Bairstow was homeless.

Recognizing Bairstow’s need for clarity, value and support, new captain Ben Stokes and trainer Brendon McCullum provided a defined role at number five without the distraction of holding.

They ignored calls for Harry Brook to get the nod both before and after the first Test against New Zealand, then resisted the temptation to give the gloves to Bairstow when Ben Foakes was ruled out of that Test.

The results were spectacular. In his last five innings, Bairstow has 483 runs with an average of 121 and a batting average of 108.

He has also found himself at the center of England’s slip cordon, quickly becoming the safest pair of hands in an area that routinely leaks more than a sieve.

Bairstow’s need for value on the field also matches his desire to be loved.

He can be a complex character. Among viewers, his popularity is matched by few in the England team. When playing on the frontier, Bairstow often has long conversations with those in the front row.

Before the game on a day of the Lord’s Test against New Zealand, Bairstow had a net surrounded by fans and was happy to tell them everything he was doing.

But although Bairstow has played international cricket longer than all but James Anderson and Stuart Broad, Bairstow has rarely been the social center of the English team.

He can also pack a punch with the press. After his ton at Trent Bridge, he answered a fair and innocent question about the challenge and benefits of moving from the Indian Premier League to Test cricket with an impassioned defense of his decision not to play county cricket at the start of the season.

There seems to have been a change here too. Before the Headingley test, he invited the England team to a barbecue at his house and stood at the grill alongside Anderson. After his last ton in Edgbaston, he cracked joke after joke when speaking to the media.

The security and comfort Bairstow feels is manifest in his hitting, where he benefits from a delightfully uncomplicated technique.

The right-hander, imposing at the crease, taps the club three times and then lifts his toe skyward. He stands statuesquely as he waits, then makes a tiny movement of both feet as the bowler gathers.

Bairstow is an impeccable length connoisseur. All good is respected, but a bowler’s margin for error is infinitesimal. Too full and the ball just gets pumped back, too short and it gets wiped into the crowd.

The trademark fire in the stomach remains. After a difficult period on Sunday morning, Bairstow was brought to life by an exchange of words with Virat Kohli.

He is one of the game’s greatest observers and can be distracted by a fly landing in the pint glass of a spectator seated behind the bowler’s arm. He had asked someone in an executive box to sit down just before he got Mohammed Shami to make the first slip.

It was the end of another great century, even if this England may not be enough to make another escape. Still, the extraordinary numbers speak of a man feasting on a stain of the deepest purple.

Last year, Joe Root broke the record for an England player in a calendar year with 1,708 runs and ranks third on the all-time list.

On this date 12 months ago, Root had 891 runs from 16 innings. Bairstow has 880 out of 15.

Bairstow has fewer games planned than Root so that mark is probably out of reach, but the excitement comes from what the future might hold for a man who hasn’t yet reached his 33rd birthday.

What heights could Bairstow still reach?

Go Johnny, go!

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