Jonny Bairstow eager to seize latest chance at England Test spot

As we search for the few certainties that remain in modern life, there was some comfort when Thursday brought with it a familiar talking point. Of the England Test side and Jonny Bairstow’s part in it.

It seems to come around quicker each year, replete with wicketkeeping discussions, a knack of getting bowled through the gate and copy-and-paste jobs on the spurious unquantifiables of character and ego. Yet here he is in Sri Lanka as the most obvious beneficiary of Rory Burns’ absence for the birth of his first child, eyeing up a first Test appearance since the 2019 Boxing Day Test against South Africa.

Firstly, for the good of transparency, the topic of Bairstow adding to his 70 Test caps comes via media obligations from his hotel room in Hambantota. The squad, minus Moeen Ali and Chris Woakes who are isolating after Moeen’s positive Covid test, trained on Wednesday and Thursday. On Friday they will return to action in an intra-squad red-ball match of 50 overs each between Team Root and Team Buttler.

Even that fixture carries more than a whiff of Bairstow narrative. He is part of Team Buttler, meaning he won’t keep wicket as his skipper has the gloves. Ben Foakes, who assumed keeping duties on the 2018 tour of Sri Lanka following Bairstow’s football-related injury in the lead-up to the three-Test series, will do the job for Joe Root’s XI.

Yet though wicketkeeping is not a primary concern over regaining a spot in the XI outright, it does form the basis around how he assesses his career to date of 70 Tests spread across nine years and various batting spots. And by his punchy assessment, his work stacks up alongside one of England’s best wicketkeeper-batsmen in the last 20 years – Matt Prior.

“I’m less than 60 runs behind Matty Prior’s runs on pretty much exactly the same amount of innings,” he says, defiantly. And, give or take a few runs, correctly: both with 123 innings, Prior amassing 4,099 runs to Bairstow’s 4030.

“He averaged 40; I average 35. But he’s had something like 20 not outs (21) while I’ve only had seven. So if you do the numbers on it, I’m still averaging and scoring. It’s just the not outs which are a bit different. I’m content with where I am in my head. I’m excited about what is to come with my red-ball stuff and that’s a good place to be.”

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It’s hardly the crispest of comparisons. Only 19 of Prior’s innings came above number seven, while Bairstow has a relatively evening grouping at five (31), six (39) and seven (42). The extra red ink for the former owes to the success of the teams played in, along with Prior’s excellence in the job bestowed upon him down the order.

But the comparison with Prior was meant as no slight, even if you can read it as one. Merely a point of view from Bairstow that though he may be back in the familiar zone of needing to prove himself, he does so with a degree of proof behind him. Even if, for now, his only international certainty is as one of England’s most destructive and reliable in limited-overs.

“I genuinely think my game’s in the best place it’s been,” he says. “You guys have seen how I’ve played in white-ball cricket over the last three years will have seen that move on. Obviously there’s been periods when I’ve wanted to work on different bits and people have said my technique has changed. Look, that’s fine: techniques do change; they’re ever-evolving.

“The work I’ve put into my game and the runs I’ve got left in the tank over the next three, four, five – however many years it may be – is definitely something I believe I can be a huge contributor to English cricket in the Test arena.”

Over the next few weeks, an opportunity is likely to come at number three. It was in this position Bairstow scored the last of six Test hundreds in Colombo, to accompany overseas three-figure scores in Perth, Christchurch and Cape Town. Naturally, he hopes a return to the role against the same opposition of that knock 20 innings and 26 months ago will serve him well.  

“Last time I played in Sri Lanka, I got a hundred batting at three. I think I’ve battled a few times at three and generally done alright there. If that is the case, then bring it on. It’s a great time to be playing cricket, although we haven’t got fans, we’re very fortunate to be going what we’re doing. Yeah, to go out there and bat at three will be great. In some ways, it will be a great opportunity, and there’s no better place to go out and score runs.”

Such positivity is nothing new from Bairstow. Underpinning the disgruntlement of adjusting to different positions and feeling under-appreciated is a belief that has not dimmed. For instance, he reckons he has a unique edge with the short lead-in for the first Test in Galle on 14 January with a recent stint in the Indian Premier League and spin sessions against fellow Sunrisers Hyderabad teammates Mohammad Nabi and Rashid Khan.

Whichever way you square it, 2021 is a big year for Bairstow. A return to long-form action puts him on course for a third overseas Ashes tour at the end of the year. Should he not break back into the fold, there’s a T20 World Cup in India to get right for, the first of a successive of white-ball tournaments through to 2024.

In another time, he’d have eyes on the lot. But the nature of the ongoing pandemic and the need for clearly defined bio-secure bubbles means playing across formats internationally has gone from being physically and technically taxing to almost logistically unworkable.

Thus, you could argue now is as good a time as any to be outspoken on your ambitions. Indeed, the current circumstances which require a bigger squad and prevent Burns from assimilating into the Sri Lanka tour once his partner gives birth has presented Bairstow with this latest opening.

Perhaps now, at 31, he can make the best use of himself and his personality to thrive in the format he reveres the most.

Teams for intra-squad match

Team Root:

Crawley / Bracey / Root / Lawrence / Foakes / Overton / Robinson / Leach / Wood / Anderson / Parkinson

Team Buttler:

Sibley / Pope / Bairstow / Buttler / Curran / Bess / Stone / Broad / Mahmood / Crane / Virdi

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