Is there anything Johnny Bairstow cannot do? He can play the sheet anchor role in Test cricket, go berserk from the word go in T20 cricket, keep wickets reasonably well, pluck catches out of thin air from deep mid-wicket and now open the innings and do the finishing role as well.
Bairstow has done it all in the past few months. In 2016, he made 1470 runs in Test cricket, finishing a close second behind Joe Root in terms of runs for the year. When given a go as middle-order batsman in an ODI against Ireland at the start of the summer, the Yorkshire man slammed 72 from 44 balls at the Lord’s. In T20s, his 35-ball 60 in Southampton against the Proteas helped England to a victory. In the Champions Trophy semi-finals, he was pushed to open the innings for the very first time after Jason Roy’s multiple failures and scored a patient, composed 43 in a low scoring entertainer.
Whatever has been asked of him, Bairstow has fulfilled to the best of his abilities. England seem to have started to recognise that as well. Before the Windies ODI series, England captain Eoin Morgan had commented, “We feel Jonny deserves a chance. He’s been waiting in the wings for quite a while. He will open with Alex Hales. This is an opportunity to make the opening position his.”
In the first ODI at Old Trafford on Wednesday, Bairstow once again got the chance to open the innings and drove home the advantage with a 97 ball 100 in a fairly comfortable chase of 205 in 42 overs. His maiden ODI hundred has come at a time England are pondering over their opening combinations across formats.
Jason Roy has fulfilled his role at the top with reasonable success since the 2015 World Cup. But before and during the Champions Trophy he went through a dry spell that saw him score a mere 51 runs across 8 innings. His last half-century in the format came in March against the West Indies while his last hundred, a fabulous 162, came against Sri Lanka more than a year ago.
This current rut that Roy finds himself in is exactly why Bairstow feels that the most likely position he could get chances in ODIs is the opening slot. “It’s either bat there (open) or bat six when you look at the line-up we’ve got at the moment”, Bairstow had said a few months back. As though to push Roy for the slot, Bairstow opened the innings for Yorkshire in the Royal London One-Day cup and even pulverized a hapless Durham bowling unit in a chase of 336, where he alone made 174 (in 133 balls).
That said, Bairstow isn’t quite in the Jason Roy mould. He isn’t all about attack from the word go, although he is quite capable of fulfilling that too. But England have Alex Hales for that. The advantage that Bairstow has is that he forms a perfect foil to the aggressive Hales at the top of the order. On seaming wickets, Bairstow can hold up an end and prevent a top-order collapse, something which has pestered England in the recent past. Bairstow’s ability to negate the new ball with patience also prevents Joe Root from being exposed to the new ball quite early.
“I’ve been in squads and out of squads, I’ve played, I’ve not played in different formats and if you look at it and pick it apart you’ll get yourself het up. There is more to life than getting het up about X, Y and Z, you’ve still got to live and crack on. It is important not to look towards that ODI series just yet but I hope I play. I maintain my form by not worrying about it. That is the biggest thing. You’ve got to deal with the fact you might score runs but the next game you might not play.
It is a philosophical way of looking at it even from a Yorkshireman, but it is going alright at the moment”, Bairstow had said in an interview a few months back.
It definitely is going alright for the wicket-keeper batsman at the moment. England Amjad always considered Bairstow as a competitor for Jos Buttler in the past. The 360° Buttler is a dynamic all-round package and indispensable for the new look England hence Bairstow’s chances were slim. But his truckload of runs in the longer format is forcing the England management to rethink Bairstow’s role. Now, it doesn’t seem quite impossible to fit in Bairstow and Buttler together in the shorter formats.
The middle-order though is packed with the likes of Ben Stokes, Eoin Morgan, Moeen Ali and Jos Buttler. But at the top, Bairstow is definitely ahead of Roy at the moment. Over the past six years, the Yorkshire man has had opportunities few and far between in ODIs. He has figured in just 28 games in six years, most of them coming at no.6 where he walks in with the game almost into the death overs. But now from the top of the order, Bairstow has more time to compile an innings as he showed at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
Not once did Bairstow look uncomfortable against the Windies in the series opener. He appeared quite content to go at run a ball and never flinched even when Hales departed early. With his Yorkshire mate, Joe Root, Bairstow put on 125 for the second wicket, a partnership that effectively sealed the game for England.
With six required to win the game, Bairstow, on 97, pushed Nurse through the covers and ran hard. The ball wasn’t going to hit the fence but Bairstow wasn’t looking. He wanted just three to get to that elusive three-figure mark. He scampered through for the third, jumped in joy, took off his helmet and soaked in all the applause from the crowd as his golden beard shone brightly in the night sky. It was a herculean leap for a cricketer who had been in the fringes of the limited-overs side for six long years. Finally, an opportunity has come his way and he is seizing it as though his life depends on it. Take a bow, Bairstow!