I think about Jonny a lot. One of my best friends is called Jonny, and I think about him a lot, but he won’t be offended to learn that I think about another Jonny quite a lot- Jonny Bairstow, of Yorkshire, Welsh Fire, and England’s various national sides.
Bairstow was recently recalled to the Test side, despite an at-best-patchy return to the longest form for parts of England’s tours of Sri Lanka and India. Selected for his form against spin, nothing really worked out for Bairstow, and I, as many others, was irritated by the fact he was taken out of the white-ball system to look terrible in a Test match.
It’s hardly a secret that Jonny Bairstow has, frankly, played like complete shit in Tests since about 2018, when he became a key part of England’s white-ball side, particularly as an opener in the all-conquering 2019 World Cup-winning side. By adjusting his technique, primarily through moving heavily towards the leg-side, Bairstow recreated himself as one of, if not the, best opener in the business, while affecting his Test performances significantly. While the compilations of him being bowled through the gate are entertaining, they are normally shared: A. Maliciously and B. Ignoring the reason why Bairstow may struggle with balls on the off-side, especially when trying to defend after many months of aggression. Bairstow’s repeated recalls to the Test side are often treated as his own fault, as though he, selfishly, is attracting the attention of selectors. Why doesn’t he just say “no mas”, and let one of England’s talented younger bats take his place?*
*some irony intended, though I love Ollie Pope and Dan Lawrence deeply.
I myself have suggested Bairstow be allowed to do what he’s best at. To concentrate on the limited-overs formats he dominates. I wasn’t best pleased he was taken out of the Hundred, robbing the nascent format its best ambassador, to sit around as a backup wicketkeeper. But the more I think about it, the more I also remember my subconscious desire for Jonny Bairstow to succeed in every form of the game, for one very key reason:
He is an incredible batsman.
In the UK we tend to romanticise the stars of elsewhere, whether it be Virat Kohli’s modern ultra-classicism, or Brendon McCullum’s aggression from the off, or even Chris Gayle’s unrepentant commitment to absolutely fucking whacking it as hard as he can. All these traditions can be seen in England’s limited overs-side, but it’s rare for us to acknowledge the players who actually became the best, highest-scoring side in the world. We know Joe Root, Jason Roy, and Jos Buttler are good, but we think about their competitors from elsewhere, and how they don’t slow the score down, or get out against spin, or only get big scores every so often. This is all incredibly unfair, and I think Bairstow somehow falls victim to a similar, if subtly different, form of English un-exceptionalism.
A big part is down to his appearance. Jonny Bairstow is 5’9 and stocky. He has a broad, open face, cast into distinct focus by his violently red hair. For those who are used to watching him get out cheaply in Test matches, he looks ever-so-slightly gormless, and as though he doesn’t know exactly what his job is as a batsman.
This stockiness is what makes him truly unique as a limited-overs batsman, and as an opener. He’s a muscular player, obviously so, in a way that Jos Buttler, for example, doesn’t show as obviously in bulge of chest or swell of bicep. But the way Bairstow strikes the ball, in his innumerable centuries and half-centuries, betrays the approach of somebody who knows his own strengths, and makes it a key part of his game, but isn’t reliant upon it.
How often do you see Jonny Bairstow follow through, bring his bat to his head, huff with the effort of his blow?
Hardly ever, almost never.. His boundaries- from rattled fours to brutal sixes- are struck with what looks like a minimum of effort. His bat is held aloft, theatrically, but in the exact position he meets the ball. He can heave (and occasionally does, to great effect), but Bairstow is no slogger. He has decided to take on every ball, slow or fast, but in many cases the method of assault is identical, almost effortless.
I really don’t know how to describe this. Jonny Bairstow often seems to gently kiss the ball with his bat, or raise it in defence, but it goes miles. It almost looks like he’s cheating, except it doesn’t. It makes no sense, except for the fact Jonny Bairstow has done it.
His competitors for the title of finest ODI opener, whether that be Rohit Sharma, Quinton de Kock, or his own teammate Jason Roy, all favour a certain plan of attack. Sharma is often a slow starter, the elfin De Kock occasionally struggles for power, while Roy’s two-faced nature leaves him looking like Viv Richards at one moment, and Phil Tufnell the next.
Bairstow often gets out cheaply, and looks poor. But it’s all method. You know exactly what Jonny Bairstow is going to do whenever he steps out to the crease, and more often than not, it works in a big way. Whether it’s a century or a 10-ball 35, Jonny Bairstow sets the platform, and sees off the finest bowlers the opposition can muster- and on the occasions he stays in for the long haul, the rest as well.
This is a long tangent, but ultimately, here is my point: Jonny Bairstow is a player who, like Kohli, Williamson, Sharma, Smith, or even emerging great Rishabh Pant, has shown complete dominance over one format of the game. Kohli is the three-format legend, despite his recent drought, but unlike the others, Bairstow bestrides the 20 and 50-over games alike. It feels as though a third act to his Test career, where he combines the evolution of his game, from the promise of 2016–17 and the repeated failures ever since, would be just reward for one of the finest players England has produced.
He won’t be a Cook, a Gooch, a Root, or even a Ben Stokes. We know too painfully his limitations. But a player like Jonny Bairstow, who dominates two forms of cricket in a way that we have rarely seen before, almost demands some level of Test success, without which, harshly or not, he will never be fully respected at the level of the men who have bravely ground out Test centuries in average teams, or those who have lit up individual innings in lost causes and false dawns.
Part of me would love nothing more than for Jonny Bairstow to play another four years as the best batsman in England’s T20 and ODI sides. He will do it, and do brilliantly. I would comfortably name him within England’s three finest white-ball players, and think there’s a strong argument for him to be eventually remembered as the best. But I also increasingly, in foolish and forbidden snatches of dream, imagine him transplanting even fifty percent of his limited-over dominance to the Test arena, and scoring another five or six centuries from number six or seven.
Even here, I’m limiting my imagination to what I think is realistic. I know the reality. I know his limitations. It almost certainly can’t, and won’t work. But if players with similar flaws can do incredible things, why not a dominant figure, the best in the world right now, do it this summer? Virender Sehwag famously explained before he’s ever hit a red ball competitively why David Warner would be a better Test bat than in T20- because there were more gaps in the field. Jonny Bairstow knows those gaps, and can skip the boundary more readily than anybody I’ve ever seen not named Christopher Henry Gayle. Unlike Jos Buttler- one of the other Big Three in terms of English white ball players, he does so almost entirely without the aid of ramps, scoops, and the general 360 approach of the modern game. At some point, you hope and pray, it all comes together. It could. It probably won’t. But it really could.
When you watch Jonny Bairstow at his best, you really think he could do it, even though the rest of your mind is screaming no. You watch Bairstow meet a good ball on a good length and crack it for six. You watch him sweep a leg-break for four, or a handy two. You watch him somehow launch a 67mph slower ball into the stands. The colour and shine of the ball means a lot, but it could also mean nothing. When you watch Jonny Bairstow at his best- which is well over half the time- you really think anything is possible.