Jun 16, 2020
George DobellSenior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo
Jonny Bairstow remains determined to reclaim the gloves in England’s Test side and hopes his enforced break from the game will have refreshed him.
Bairstow was dropped from the England Test squad which toured New Zealand at the end of last year with Jos Buttler taking over as wicketkeeper. While Bairstow made a brief return to the side as a specialist batsman for the first Test in South Africa as a last-minute replacement – Ollie Pope, who was England’s preferred choice, was unwell – he was unable to capitalise on the opportunity. He scored 1 and 9 and did not feature in the rest of the series.
However, he was named in England’s 55-man training squad a couple of weeks ago, and hopes he can sufficiently impress in the next couple of weeks to earn a recall. England will name a squad of around 30 men for the Test series on Wednesday. That will be cut to around 20 after the three-day warm-up match that starts on July 2.
The position of Test keeper remains keenly contested. Buttler was unable to take his opportunity over the winter – he averaged just 17.55 across five Tests without registering a half-century – and still has just one century to show for his 41-match career.
Ben Foakes was also named in the training squad and is generally considered the best keeper of the three. He is also unlikely to feature in the limited-overs squad – despite winning the player-of-the-match award in his only ODI – which might prove relevant given the cramped nature of England’s summer schedule.
With only one clear day between the end of the West Indies Test series and the start of the Ireland ODI series, England may be reluctant to field the same players in both. There is also only one clear day between the third ODI against Ireland and the start of the Test series against Pakistan. Both Bairstow and Buttler are first-choice players in England’s ODI side.
But whatever the demands, Bairstow is keen to reclaim the Test keeping spot.
“Over a period of time, I’ve been really happy with my keeping,” Bairstow said. “That was the part of my game which, at the start of my career, people questioned.
“But people have stopped speaking about it over the last couple of years. My stats are very good. So there’s no reason why that isn’t an area I want to be coming back into.
“I was disappointed to lose the gloves at the time. My stats were very good and I didn’t feel like I had done anything wrong with my keeping. I was getting complimented highly by people on that.
“When you think about getting back in you can only be judged on your last performances and I like to think they were good. I hope they will get me back in the side as long as I score enough runs.”
Bairstow has a point about his keeping. The years of hard work have paid off and he is undoubtedly much improved with the gloves. His issue has been a sharp downturn in his returns as a batsman, with just one century in his last 18 Tests and an average of 19.15 in 14 Tests since mid-August 2018.
While he could claim, with some justification, that he has been messed around by the team management – he averaged 37.89 at No. 6 and No. 7 but was asked to move up the order and averaged 26.69 at No. 4 and No. 5 – he knows he is not the only one expected to take on a role outside their comfort zone for the overall good of the team.
It may be relevant that Bairstow enjoyed his finest run of batting form, in red-ball cricket at least, after a prolonged break from the Test side. Ahead of the Caribbean tour in 2015, Bairstow worked on his technique and emerged with the high back-lift that has subsequently characterised his play. He averaged 92.33 in the following County Championship season and, from December 1 2015 to December 1 2016, averaged 64.13 in Test wicket with three centuries and eight half-centuries across 16 games.
But maintaining such technical work is not always easy given England’s relentless schedule. Not only are some players reluctant to tinker with their game while they are in performance mode, but they are also obliged to make adaptions for the different requirements of the white-ball game. Over time, Bairstow has started to struggle a little with his balance and has, as a result, been bowled 33 times in 70 Tests; a higher percentage than anyone else this century.
So instead of taking Bairstow to New Zealand, the England management dropped him and sent him to South Africa early to work on his batting with Jonathan Trott. While the initial returns on that investment were not especially encouraging – he was bowled in his first innings back in South Africa – reports from the nets were more positive. He was then rested – a slightly surprising ploy bearing in mind he had played one Test over the previous two tours – from the Sri Lanka trip. But he now hopes the combination of rest and technical work can help him shine in the warm-up match and win a recall.
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“I’m pleased with the way my batting has been going,” he said. “I’ve been facing the dogstick and I’ve had a few sessions with the bowling machine. It’s been good to groove my technique. There have always been challenges that have been asked – whether keeping wicket or batting in certain positions – and I’d like to think I’ve risen to those challenges.
“Not going to Sri Lanka, I felt I needed a bit of a break because I had something like six nights at home from October until February. That naturally takes its toll so I think it came at a decent time and there will be a freshness coming back in. It’s been a good break. I’ve been able to refresh and reset mentally.”
In the short term, Bairstow will take his training up a level on Wednesday when he travels to Durham. There he will face Ben Stokes, Mark Wood and Brydon Carse – each of whom can bowl at 90mph and more – in preparation for a West Indies attack that he knows is capable of hostility.
“Red-ball cricket has been a massive part of my career. There is no reason why that shouldn’t be the case at this moment in time. I want to play. The warm-up game is key to the rest of the summer. I want to play.”
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