June 4, 2022, Headingley. England are in the middle of another top-order collapse when Jonny Bairstow, fresh from an astounding Test hundred at Trent Bridge, glides out to the centre. Like his former captain Joe Root, Bairstow receives a rapturous welcome. Much of it is appreciation of what he did at Trent Bridge – an innings not many (if any) can recreate. In fact, that knock was so magnificent that it was dubbed by several as the innings of Bairstow and England’s dreams.
It had everything. It had the batter’s usual white-ball belligerence. It had him capitalizing on favourable match-ups. And more importantly, it had Bairstow understanding the moments that were to be seized. So, from that crescendo, the only way, as cliched statements would go, was downwards.
England might’ve feared that was the case too. With four of their top-order batters back in the shed, they might’ve even been terrorized by the prospect of a follow-on being enforced. The hosts had their backs against the wall and with Neil Wagner and Trent Boult making the ball talk, not many would’ve argued otherwise.
At one stage, they had slipped to 55/6. Bairstow was still around but he only had Jamie Overton for company. The latter has been in good touch this season but was still a debutant – that too against Boult, Wagner and Tim Southee. Bairstow, though, knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish.
The pair ransacked 209 runs in 37.1 overs – all while New Zealand were getting the ball to hoop around corners and many were wondering if England were committed enough to stick to their new-found philosophy. This was, also, a stark difference from how most cricketers, especially when shoved into such a corner, would’ve tried tiding over the storm, hoping that when the tempest becomes calmer, an opportunity might present itself.
Bairstow, for context, is not an ordinary cricketer. He has been painted that way in Test cricket because his white-ball record, is simply put, pretty special. So, his Test returns, which don’t really portray how much he has had to shunt up and down the order, and adapt to different roles, doesn’t really tell the entire story.
For example, before the 4th Ashes Test in Sydney in early 2022, not many would’ve believed he was a vital cog in their middle-order. He looked susceptible to a couple of modes of dismissals, and didn’t seem to have a settled spot. There were also doubts about whether England had made the right choice. Once he reeled off a spending hundred at the SCG, batting with a broken thumb (no less), everyone started taking him seriously.
This was, lest we forget, also a cricketer who wasn’t really in the scheme of things before India toured England last summer. The Three Lions had fielded a highly-changed Test squad against New Zealand. However, with none of the incumbents covering themselves in glory, Bairstow’s all-round brilliance was what they turned to. It didn’t materialize instantly but when it did, it added to the evidence that that Bairstow knows how to shut his critics up.
He likes wearing his heart on his sleeve – something he admitted could rub off on some people the wrong way. But the important thing is he knows how to let his bat do the talking – a pattern that has become an integral part of his Test journey in 2022 and of course, his legend in international cricket.
Back in 2019, England were favourites to win the ICC Cricket World Cup. On paper, they had an all-conquering batting unit and there were murmurs that they wanted to breach the 500-run mark in ODI cricket.
Then, they lost a few games - against Australia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka - and the talk, which was around how they would win the World Cup, quickly transformed into whether they could win it at all.
In that particular redemption arc, they had to face India and New Zealand – two teams who were genuinely cast as frontrunners to win the entire thing. Guess who stood up with centuries in both of those matches?
During that sequence, Bairstow fired his shots long before he walked out to bat against India at Edgbaston. The mood, which was upbeat prior to the tournament, had started stinking of negativity. Not within the camp, but from those on the outside. Bairstow fronted up to it and even said “people were waiting for us to fail”. And, he walked the talk by scoring runs and propelling his side to victories.
Even in the Caribbean this year, there was plenty of chat around England’s ‘red-ball reset’. At the time, not many knew it was going to be Root’s last series as Test captain. So, when he came out stating England wanted to be a better version of their recent Test selves, it was met with scepticism, considering there wasn’t a lot of evidence to back it up.
Bairstow, however, was one of those who warmed up to that task. He shed his usual cavalier attitude, ground out a ton and showed that he still belongs to the Test arena – not just as someone who can plug whichever hole when required, but as a crucial component of any Test side England put out.
Brendon McCullum was appointed England’s Test coach thereafter, with Ben Stokes taking over from Root. Both of them, akin to Bairstow, have lived and died by the sword throughout their cricketing careers. From that point of view, this was a match made in heaven, especially with the Punjab Kings batter having enjoyed marvellous partnerships in the past with Stokes.
But when Bairstow couldn’t quite get going in the opening Test and the first innings at Trent Bridge, the decibel levels of the murmurs began amping up. This was, by the way, a style he seemed most suitable for. However, with Ollie Pope and Zak Crawley young, and among the runs, many made Bairstow out to be an easy target.
In a flash, his exploits in Sydney and the West Indies were forgotten. Jos Buttler and Moeen Ali, both of whom are not part of the squad featuring against New Zealand, were touted as potential options.
Jonny Bairstow has been sensational against New Zealand
So, it was only fitting that Bairstow let his bat do the talking. He didn’t play just any innings. He has, since the questions were raised, played two of the greatest modern-day Test innings the world has seen.
A 92-ball 136 against New Zealand – that too on a wearing Day 5 pitch? Check. An extremely enterprising counter-attacking ton with England tottering at 55/6 and more than 200 runs behind? Check. An innings that makes an entire country believe that anything is achievable from any perilous batting situation? Check.
Prima facie, it might seem that Bairstow is coming of age in Test cricket. The spin to that, though, is that this is probably the first time he has complete clarity of what is expected of him. He can go out, he can throw caution to the wind and he can just be himself without worrying about what people say. He has been the purest version of himself and as New Zealand would testify, this is pretty darn good.
Interestingly enough, the PBKS batter has come out and said that he and England have just simplified what can sometimes be a complicated game. Maybe, the solution has been this simple all along.
It might’ve taken years to get to this point but now that it has, it might spell trouble for the rest of the world. Not just because of what England are capable of, but also because Bairstow, in this sort of form, is as good as anyone on the planet.
At Trent Bridge, many believed he had played the innings of his and England’s dreams. At Headingley, he produced something similar, or even better considering he had to set the game up in very adverse conditions. But if these two knocks have proved anything, it’s that Bairstow can turn these dreams into reality on a regular basis.
Oh, and about writing him off, well, do it at your own peril. It’s been that way for quite a few years. And might be that way until he hangs up his boots!