The year 2016 has been fairly awful, but not for Jonny Bairstow who has had a fantastic 12 months. Having been in and out of the Test side since his debut in 2012, he has now turned himself into a world-class batsman and a much improved wicket-keeper.
After getting the full-time keeping job for last winter’s tour of South Africa, he has been in scintillating form since. Going into that first Test against South Africa, he had 845 runs in 20 Tests an an average of 28.38. Since then he has scored 1,238 runs at 65.15 with three hundreds and six fifties. He has broken Andy Flower’s record for the most runs by a wicket-keeper in a calendar year and has also claimed the most dismissals by an England player in a 12-month period.
Bairstow had some early success in Test cricket when he scored 95 at Lord’s against a fired up South African pace attack in his fourth match, having been brought into the side to replace Kevin Pietersen after the drama about England’s erstwhile number four batsman texting his opponents. But he never nailed down a spot before December of this year.
Bairstow’s technique is very different from the one he had when he first arrived in international cricket back in 2011, when he made a match winning 41 from 29 balls in an ODI on a rainy September night in Cardiff against India. Back then he was crouched at the crease and had a big knee bend as the bowler ran into to bowl. This became more and more pronounced as he struggled for form before being left out of the Test side.
Speaking in the summer, Bairstow discussed his change to a more upright and fluid stance, one that has brought him so much success.
“As quite a young lad coming into the side, I was quite low, crouched, front arm was very straight and rigid which made my chest and back very rigid as well. It became very mechanical instead of natura, which is what sport should be.”
Now he bats with his hands held high which he says allows him to play the ball a bit later rather than reaching in front of himself to play a shot, and his higher backlift gives him more time to play his shots.
He made his first Test hundred using this new approach against South Africa at Newlands in January this year, as he shared a 399-run partnership with Ben Stokes. Bairstow scored 150 not out at a strike rate of 78.53, but his innings was overshadowed by Stokes’s ridiculous 258 from 198 balls. Although all the headlines were about Stokes and his 11 sixes, that innings announced Bairstow as a Test batsman.
He arrived home for the English summer and kept that form going with two further hundreds against Sri Lanka, including a career best 167 not out at Lord’s. There were no hundreds in the thrilling series against Pakistan, but he made three half-centuries including two scores in the 80s.
Batting at six or seven in the line up, Bairstow has been vital to England by making up for a flabby top order that is still in search of a long-term opener, as well as a number four and number five. In 2016 England’s sixth wicket has been the most productive, scoring 1,550 runs at an average of 77.5. That is almost twice as good as the next best, 867 runs for the opening stand. The reason for that is Bairstow.
His wicket-keeping is getting better with every match, but it is still under construction. He did very well standing up to the stumps in Bangladesh, but there were still the odd missed chance. In India, any drops or missed stumpings could be disastrous. Making massive strides with the bat, and with him still capable of the odd wicket-keeping error, there have been calls for Bairstow to play as a specialist batsman.
Quite who would replace Bairstow as keeper is up for debate, although Ben Foakes at Surrey has been fantastic with the gloves and his batting is improving rapidly. It is unlikely that the stubborn England management group would make that sort of change any time soon. It would take someone like Foakes making their selection inevitable with weight of runs. For now England’s wicket-keeper will be Bairstow, and as England’s leading run scorer in Tests in 2016 he will be absolutely vital to England’s slim chances of success on this tour of India. If he has a good series he could extend his lead as the wicket-keeper with the most runs in a calendar year to such a point that the record will never be broken.
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