England have a long-standing quandary with knockout games. They have lost 13 of the 19 knockout matches (in ODI tournaments) they have played in. The record is the worst after Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and Kenya which further complicates the perennial chokers tag placed on the “unlucky” Proteas.
For a team that witnessed massive changes to their approach in limited-overs cricket since the 2015 World Cup, the Champions Trophy last year was a bolt from the blue for England. They were their marauding self in the group matches but at the first sight of a crumbling wicket, succumbed to an unflinching Pakistan outfit led by the tactful Sarfraz Ahmed.
It was perhaps ironical that the loss in the semi-finals of that tournament was also the first time Jonathan Marc Bairstow opened the batting for England in ODIs. It is even more bizarre when you look back now and realise that his 43 at Cardiff came at a strike rate of 75.43 for there hasn't been a single instance since then when he scored anything greater than 40 at a strike rate less than 90.
In fact, all of his four hundreds in ODIs have come since moving to the top of England's batting order. Quite amazingly, all of these four hundreds have come at a strike rate greater than 100 and each of them have come at a strike rate better than the previous!
His first hundred at the top of the order — against West Indies in Manchester in September — came at a rate of 103.09 but he was just finding his feet as an opener then. The unbeaten 141 in Southampton by the end of that series came at a strike rate of 123.68 which catapulted into the 130s at Dunedin three days back and into the 170s by the series decider at Christchurch.
“Jonny is going to open with Alex Hales. We feel Jonny deserves a chance. He’s been waiting in Eoin Morgan the wings for quite a while now. This is an opportunity to make the opening position his,” skipper, Morgan, had said before the West Indian series last year.
Six months down the lane, it can hardly be argued that Bairstow hasn't owned the position. He is the second most successful opener globally since moving to the top of the order permanently in ODIs for England (since September 2017) behind Rohit Sharma.
With a jaw-dropping 761 runs in 15 ODIs at an average of 63.41 and a strike rate of 105.11, Bairstow has more than cozied up in the England's limited-overs side, something he sorely wanted to do after sporadic appearances couldn't quite quench his thirst for success in coloured clothing.
He is England's most successful batsman since the Champions Trophy and also has four hundreds in this time frame, matched only by the nonchalant brilliance of Rohit Sharma. Yet, none of the three previous hundreds — including his 106 ball 138 at Dunedin masked by a belligerent Ross Taylor — would stand up against his best knock in ink blue at Wellington in the series decider.
The English bowlers had restricted the Kiwis to 223 on a flat baked Hagley Oval wicket. Yet, the game wasn't over by any means for England, who in any must win game, manage to find ways to lose track more often than not. They had perished to 211 all out on a pretty good pitch at Cardiff against Pakistan just six months ago and a similar collapse couldn't entirely be ruled out. But with Bairstow going bonkers, the others barely had to break a bead of sweat before the target was aced in 32.4 overs. The opener had slammed a blistering ton in 58 balls — third fastest for England and the fastest by an English opener.
First 38 balls: 50 Runs
Next 20 balls: 50 Runs
Back to Back ODI Centuries!
— Broken Cricket (@BrokenCricket) March 10, 2018
If World Cup 2015 England was different from the Champions Trophy 2017 England, the Christchurch England was completely different too, for it had one formidable presence at the top of the order in the name of Johnny Bairstow.
Unlike Hales and Jason Roy, both of whom bring pretty similar skills to the table, Bairstow is an accumulator, so much so that he came within seven runs of eclipsing Joe Root's tally of Test runs in a year in 2016. Yet, what separates Bairstow, and also puts him in the first-class category of modern day One Day International openers, is his ability to accumulate runs at a pretty astounding rate.
Roy had been hit or miss and Hales was far too inconsistent which more often than not exposed England's middle-order quite early. While the brilliance of Root, the offbeat effulgence of Morgan, the bravado of Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler and a lizard’s tail length batting line-up more often than not covered up for the mishaps at the top, there wasn't the ruthlessness within this England side that you would associate with some of the best ODI teams from the past.
The answer to all of those was Bairstow. He slid into the top of England’s batting line-up, hit the ground running and took the ODI World by storm. After 16 innings as an opener, Bairstow is among the first names in the very same team sheet he had struggled to put his name into a year ago.
His eye-catching onslaught at Wellington that tucked New Zealand into a corner had far reaching effects. It showed that for once England were ready to conquer their knockout blues in the most bullish of fashions.
"We'd spoken many times about it being 2-2 and a huge game. The way the guys came out, people had compared it to a knockout game, and the guys said this is how we'll react. We knew we needed to get better in certain areas and put in a clinical, ruthless performance and that's what we did,” Bairstow commented after the match.
It is this very ruthlessness that England have been on the hunt for ever since a certain Wasim Akram ruined their hopes on a night at Melbourne 26 years ago. With Bairstow leading from the top, England's metamorphosis into a savage limited-overs outfit is complete.