The Bairstow Conundrum

The Bairstow Conundrum

Updated: Feb 22, 2023 12:16 pm

England’s victory in the first Test against New Zealand was the latest in a string of impressive results dating back to last summer. Brendan McCullum and Ben Stokes have spearheaded a new era of exciting, expressive cricket. The results have matched the entertainment; England have won ten of their last eleven Test matches. The visit of Australia this summer is to be embraced, not feared; everything is rosy, Bazball is booming, and the Australians are currently floundering in India. But the success has led to an increasingly difficult conundrum. How do England fit Jonny Bairstow in? The form of Harry Brook has created England’s biggest Ashes selection headache since Thorpe or Pietersen in 2005.

Earlier in the winter, McCullum expressed that there was “no doubt” that Bairstow would come back in when fit again. Bairstow was Bazball’s original poster boy, batting with the same carefree abandon that has made him such a force in limited-overs cricket. 2022 saw Bairstow’s Test career reach new heights, revitalised and rejuvenated; he scored over 1000 runs, including six centuries. But it was in the summer he really shone. His scintillating stroke play was key to England’s victories over New Zealand and India, as he fully embraced the new carefree ethos of the McCullum era. In the form of his life, Bairstow was looking forward to a profitable winter, plundering runs on the barren surfaces of the subcontinent. But a freak golf accident that saw him break his leg left him a spectator of England’s historic series win in Pakistan.

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Bairstow’s injury provided an opportunity for his Yorkshire compatriot Harry Brook, who had spent the summer carving up county attacks. But Brook has been more than a stop-gap, stepping into Bairstow’s considerable shoes with great aplomb. Brook has taken to Test cricket like a duck to water, scoring 623 runs in five matches at an average of 78, with three centuries under his belt. Brook’s ability was indisputable before he began his Test career, but it has been remarkable how he has consistently channelled his outrageous talent. Brook bats with the aggressive intent that has become customary to this England side but blends power with poise, style with savagery; he oozes class. Brook has quickly established himself as one of the most dangerous batters in Test cricket and has made himself undroppable. So who might have to make way?

In theory, dropping Ben Foakes is the easiest move, with Bairstow keeping in his place, but just because it’s the easiest choice, it doesn’t make it the right one. Foakes underlined his importance to England in Mount Maunganui with two valuable knocks alongside his usual impeccable keeping, even standing up to Stuart Broad at one stage. Foakes has long been lauded as the best wicket-keeper in the world, a claim supported by his captain, but his batting has often been underappreciated. Foakes has admitted that he’s not exactly “Bazball”, but he doesn’t need to be; like Joe Root, he can act as a calm counterbalance.

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Foakes’s hundred against South Africa last summer is a prime example of the balance he brings, batting superbly with the more exuberant Stokes to haul England to a competitive total. Similarly, in the final Test in Pakistan, Foakes shepherded the tail calmly, giving England a vital first innings lead. Foakes is another beneficiary of England’s more relaxed approach, even if the results may not be as apparent as some of his teammates. He has been desperately unlucky throughout his Test career, typified in Pakistan; after missing the first Test through illness, England’s stunning victory saw him left out again in the following Test. Foakes has quietly become a vital component of this England side, and England would sorely miss his presence behind the stumps.

A more radical approach would be dropping Zak Crawley and inserting Bairstow at the top of the order, a role he occupies in England’s one-day side. Based on stats alone, Crawley is the weakest member of England’s batting lineup, averaging 28 from his 32 Test matches. Crawley’s Test career thus far has been filled with moments of promise but ultimately lacking consistency. Crawley is a pleasure to watch in full flow, but sadly, bowlers have often exploited his vulnerabilities outside off stump. The booming drives that make him easy on the eye are often his downfall. Crawley has time on his side; it’s just whether he’s worth persevering with in the short term.

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Crawley showed his character in Pakistan, putting a torrid summer behind him with a superb century in the first Test. Stokes and McCullum were staunch in their defence of Crawley last summer, backing him to a hilt, but this was before the emergence of Brook. An argument in Crawley’s favour is the balance his partnership with Ben Duckett brings, not just in the right-hand, left-hand combination. Their differing heights can disrupt bowlers’ lengths, something Pakistan’s bowlers struggled with particularly.

Could Bairstow open the batting? His renaissance has been in the middle order, providing a counter-attacking punch when the shine on the ball has disappeared. Bairstow is a destructive presence at the top of the order in white ball cricket, but facing the red ball first up is a wholly different proposition, especially in England. In the past, Bairstow had a slight propensity to being bowled through the gate, something opening bowlers would look to exploit. However, with England’s current dynamics, I can’t see technical deficiencies being too instrumental in McCullum’s thought processes. Another option could involve bumping Ollie Pope up to open, but this would upset the dynamics and probably end up with Joe Root having to bat three, a path we’ve walked far too many times.

McCullum and Stokes have a tough choice looming ahead of the Ashes, but the embarrassment of riches indicates the rude health of England’s Test side. England’s free-spirited approach has players clamouring to get aboard the Bazbus, a bus Bairstow was vital to getting the wheels in motion. Barring any further golf-related mishaps, I’d fully expect Bairstow to take to the field at Edgbaston next June for the Ashes curtain-raiser. Who makes way? Well, I’m glad it’s not a decision I have to make.

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