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

From scrapping to saving his career, to soaring into the form of his – or anyone else’s – life.

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

It was salvaged by a hundred made with a broken thumb in Sydney. Six months and four more centuries later, he is batting on a level unmatched by any player on the planet. No-one has more Test runs or hundreds than the Yorkshireman in 2022.

Bairstow has rescued England with every one of the five tons he has made this year – all have been made after he arrived at the crease with fewer than 60 runs on the board and at least three wickets down.

He is the patron saint of digging out of the shtuck.

Bairstow’s last three hundreds have come in successive matches in the space of 20 days. Against New Zealand there was the blitz of Trent Bridge and counter-strike of Headingley.

Against India there was the exhibition at Edgbaston, arguably the best knock of three given the degree of difficulty and the way he moved up and down the gears – only 13 runs off his first 63 balls, then a hurricane of 87 from the next 56, followed by relaxing back into six from 20 before he was finally out for 106.

Just as Bairstow has embraced England’s Bazball revolution, so too has Bazball embraced Bairstow.

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

Up to that Sydney Test, Bairstow had played 79 matches and averaged less than 34. Having made his debut in 2012, his six Test tons to that point had all come in a three-year period midway through his career. At his peak in 2016, Bairstow made 1,470 runs, but had not passed 652 in any other year.

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

As well as being shunted from every batting position between number three and eight, he also had the wicketkeeping gloves repeatedly taken away and returned. Bairstow was homeless.

New captain Ben Stokes and coach Brendon McCullum have recognised Bairstow’s need for clarity, value and backing, providing a defined role at number five, without the distraction of keeping.

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 this Test.

The results have been spectacular. In his last five innings, Bairstow has amassed 483 runs at an average of 121 with a strike-rate of 108.

He has also found himself in the hub of England’s slip cordon, fast becoming the safest pair of hands in an area regularly more leaky than a sieve.

Bairstow’s on-field need for worth is also matched by his off-field desire to be loved.

He can be a complex character. With spectators, his popularity is matched by few in the England team. Often, when he is fielding on the boundary, Bairstow will have lengthy conversations with those on the front row.

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

But despite having played international cricket longer than all but James Anderson and Stuart Broad, Bairstow has rarely been at the social centre of the England team.

He can be punchy with the press, too. After his Trent Bridge ton, he responded to a fair and innocent question about the challenge and benefits of switching from the Indian Premier League to Test cricket with an impassioned defence 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 hosted the England team for a barbecue at his house, manning the grill alongside Anderson. After his latest ton at Edgbaston, he cracked joke after joke when he spoke to the media.

The security and comfort Bairstow is feeling manifests itself in his batting, where he is benefitting from a gloriously uncomplicated technique.

The right-hander, imposing at the crease, taps the bat three times then raises the toe to the sky. He stands statuesque as he waits, then has a tiny movement of both feet as the bowler gathers.

Bairstow is an immaculate judge of length. Anything good is respected but a bowler’s margin for error is infinitesimal. Too full and the ball is pumped back straight, too short and it is swiped into the crowd.

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

He is one of the game’s great sightscreen-watchers and can be distracted by a fly landing in the pint glass of a spectator sitting behind the bowler’s arm. He had called for someone in an executive box to sit down right before he edged Mohammed Shami to first slip.

It was the end of another superb century, even if this one will perhaps not be enough for England to perform another escape. Still, the extraordinary numbers speak of a man enjoying a patch of the deepest purple.

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

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

Bairstow has fewer matches scheduled than Root had, so that mark is probably out of reach, but the excitement comes from what the future could hold for a man who is yet to hit his 33rd birthday.

What heights could Bairstow yet reach?

Go Jonny, go!

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