“Before the game, Root had emphasized on Bairstow’s ability to nail his chances when he has a point to prove, and with a spectacular 110 at Colombo, he managed to do just that”
The English cricket team’s woes just never seem to end. Though they had been buoyed by the emergence of Sam Curran, Jos Buttler and Ben Foakes in the last few games, the glaring issues at the top of the order could in no way be dismissed. While the spot left vacant by Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook at the very top had become England’s Achilles Heel, an unstable number three as well brought about a sense of uncertainty and unpredictability to the side.
Since Jonathan Trott last played for the national side, ten players have been tried at the crucial spot (not including James Anderson, who played as a nightwatchman), with Gary Ballance having the best average of the lot. An impressive start to his career, which included a debut ton against Sri Lanka and two more centuries, pushed Ballance in the reckoning to be England’s permanent player at 3, but technical flaws and inconsistency marked his end.
While Joe Root, with an average of 40.47 in the spot seemed the most obvious player at three in the recent past – he even scored 254 at the position in 2016 against Pakistan, the skipper’s preference for the number 4 spot, especially while captaining, meant that England had to look to Moeen Ali and Ben Stokes as their number 3 in the last few games. With the spot requiring the ability to play for long periods, the selection of the lower middle order players at the crucial spot did raise eyebrows, whilst also forcing one to question the potential that the nation had.
Hence the move to look at Jonny Bairstow for the spot was more out of compulsion than intense planning. The wicket-keeper had suffered an ankle injury while playing football – once again throwing up the question as to whether cricketers should indulge in the sport that has a history of injuring players – and Ben Foakes, his replacement, had done well to grab his chances in the series against Sri Lanka. It forced Bairstow to miss out for the second Test of the series, despite being declared fit, and he would not even have been playing the third if Sam Curran had been a 100 per-cent.
However, destiny works in strange ways, and on Friday, it did, both for Bairstow and for England.
Coming in to bat after yet another failure at the top, the ODI opener started off with a four and once he was joined in by Root with the scorecard reading 36 for 2, the duo planted a counter-attack on the Lankan bowlers. There were drives through extra-cover for fours, back-to-back boundaries off Lakshan Sandakan and a wonderfully timed swat off Pushpakumara for a six. He played positively and swept the spinners at will while sharing a 100-run stand with Root.
On a stifling hot day, Bairstow played the patient game, waiting for the bad balls and defending the ones that did not need tampering – skills that define a good number 3 player. He survived a DRS decision as well, a poor review from Sri Lanka for a caught-behind chance that missed the edge.
After Root’s dismissal, he combined with Ben Stokes to script together a 99-run partnership, playing with such poignancy and determination that it was hard not to see that he was hurting. The player who had never before scored a Test ton batting higher than number six, literally ran to grab his chance with a perfect and faultless knock, making one ponder at why he was dropped from the last game in the very first place.
He brought up his century off 165 deliveries with a paddle sweep, and his celebrations only betrayed the emotions that had continued to grow, as he first saw an unfortunate injury forced him out and then watched from the sidelines as his keeping services were taken away from him as well.
As he ripped off his helmet, dropped his bat and let off a roar after a knock that can potentially change his role in the team, he had answered every individual who had “castigated” him during his time away from the team. “There are different things you go through when you get castigated about being injured doing X, Y and Z when people don’t actually see what’s gone on.
“The bits behind the scenes, when you’re doing your rehab when you’re sleeping on an ice machine, the things that people don’t see and yet they have an opinion on it.
“It’s all well and good when it’s going good and people have an opinion on how well you’re playing, but it’s the hidden things they don’t see.
“People that don’t sometimes see the hard work that goes on behind the scenes, people that sometimes have an opinion when they’re sat at home and they don’t see the hard work and the graft that goes on in the heat and humidity and all the other stuff.”
Before the game, Root had emphasized on Bairstow’s ability to nail his chances when he has a point to prove, and with a spectacular 110 at Colombo, he managed to do just that.