November 16, 2015

Bluey the indomitable

The embodiment of doughty Yorkshire spirit, David Bairstow made the county's cricket watchable through its most dysfunctional era

Bairstow: hewn from Yorkshire rock © Getty Images

How do you pick a favourite cricketer? Those moved by technical excellence may say Sachin Tendulkar; for something magical, Shane Warne; for a sort of dedicated, statistically impressive manliness, Jacques Kallis. But what has captivated me the most has been the swirling cloud of emotions that came together in the combustible form of David Bairstow.

Picking a Yorkshireman, admittedly, is an obligation of birth but it is an obligation happily filled. In Bairstow's hands, cricket was at its most combative and rudimentary. He was belligerent, straightforward, hot-headed. He was right, he was wrong, although rarely wrong in his own eyes. He forever carried the fight. He brought colour to the dreariest day. He was endlessly interesting. It assured him of a popularity that ranks alongside anybody in the county's history.

What made him so special on a cricket field was something earthier than a consideration of pure talent, more the sense of an indomitable spirit, often in defiance of impossible odds because the second half of his career coincided with a desperately dysfunctional era for Yorkshire cricket. Cricket was Bairstow's siren song.

And then, eight years after he retired, that spirit, that camaraderie, proved not so indomitable after all, as he committed suicide, spreading hurt down the generations. As Matthew Engel observed in a wonderful Wisden obituary: "Reports said he had been suffering from depression: his wife was ill, he had financial troubles, he faced a drink-driving charge and was in pain from his own injuries. The news stunned cricket, especially as Bairstow had always seemed the most indomitable and least introspective of men."

His endless commitment and sheer watchability communicated that the county circuit was worth treasuring, and that the flame in Yorkshire cricket could never be extinguished

Four Tests for England felt about right because he was not the most technically adept of keepers and his batting, although robustly effective, could lack polish, although 21 ODIs left him hard done by. Among those was a day-nighter against Australia in Sydney, when he was joined by his Yorkshire team-mate Graham Stevenson, and told him: "Evening, lad, we can piss this." And they did, so updating the ancient exchange of two other Yorkshiremen, Wilfred Rhodes and George Hirst - "We'll get 'em in singles" - for a different age.

But Bluey's story was not one of England. It was one of Yorkshire, as he railed against one of the most troubled times in its history. Misfortune is most easily withstood as long as someone is still in there scrapping, and he did just that, batting and keeping with a robust conviction that he could turn the tide. Even at the lowest times, his endless commitment and sheer watchability communicated that the county circuit was worth treasuring, and that the flame in Yorkshire cricket could never be extinguished. That perhaps was his greatest gift of all.

It was perhaps inevitable that his career-best innings (one of only ten first-class hundreds) came in a hopeless cause. Middlesex had made 391 at Scarborough and Yorkshire were following on at 86 for 6, still 187 behind, when Bairstow stomped out a second time. Wayne Daniel and Vintcent van der Bijl were Middlesex's two overseas pace bowlers. Yorkshire still remained wedded to fielding only players born within the county boundaries. That fact was enough to enrage Bairstow, who as captain years later was to call for the restriction to be scrapped - braver than it sounds now because many regarded it as treachery - and demand the chance to "fight fire with fire". Defiance raged; he was eventually out for 145, Yorkshire losing by eight wickets. I asked Mike Selvey, another member of Middlesex's attack that day, about it years later. "It was a red-faced effort in futility in a losing cause, a fantastic innings, we hugely admired it," he said. So it often seemed.

With Yorkshire captain Phil Carrick after clinching the 1987 Benson and Hedges Cup © Getty Images

Life at Yorkshire is very different 30 or so years on: just as passionate, undoubtedly more professional, and rewarded with success that Bairstow himself never enjoyed, and ultimately did not remain around long enough to witness. Yorkshire have now won successive Championships; Bairstow's Yorkshire won just two one-day trophies in 21 seasons. His successors deserve to take pride in their achievements but should also recognise their good fortune.

He fitted the stereotype of the unyielding Yorkshireman: forthright on the field, plain-speaking off it. Ginger-haired, square-shouldered and squat-nosed, he was up for the fray from the moment he rushed through his A levels at seven in the morning to make his debut for Yorkshire against Gloucestershire in 1970. His wicketkeeping, in its early days, was strikingly aggressive and athletic, although by the time I got to watch him on a daily basis, injuries were beginning to take their toll on misshapen fingers. His batting was chest-juttingly confrontational, as if forever driven forth by an imagined slight, from a selector or a southerner, a team-mate or a journalist, most of the committeemen who ever trod the earth, or a parlous situation over which - with what he saw as colossal injustice - he had no control.

Few players can have made their public smile more broadly. Occasionally they smiled in the wrong places. He once headed the ball onto his own stumps while batting at Harrogate - a notable blemish for a former Bradford City footballer - and the crowd's amused chatter was abruptly drowned by the slam of the dressing-room door. He believed in honest endeavour, not ironic asides. He was the embodiment of Yorkshire pride and expected people to see it that way.

His batting was chest-juttingly confrontational, as if forever driven forth by an imagined slight, from a selector or a southerner, a team-mate or a journalist

His stride out to bat was deeply combative. His innings would normally gain impetus with a quick single and an urgent cry of "run, run, run, run, run". It was an instruction impossible for the non-striker to ignore because once he had embarked upon the 22 yards there was no going back. He forever seemed to be half-hidden in a cloud of dust, stirred up by a headlong dive to the crease, or a full-blooded sweep. Energy having been restored to the game, before too long he would attempt to hit a bowler back over his head, no matter how fast. Most of life's problems, in Bluey's eyes, could be solved by hitting a bowler back over his head.

He captained a weak Yorkshire side for three seasons in the mid-'80s, given the job he had long cherished not for his tactical nous as much as for the fact that he was the only hope of unity. His commitment to attack was sympathetically characterised by one scribe as "a series of uphill cavalry charges", but no cause was ever lost. When the ball beat the outside edge for the first time all morning, he would thrust his gauntlets on his hips and shake his head with glowering, empurpled consternation. As opposition batsmen helped themselves to hundreds, his loyalty to his young attack remained fierce. Fletcher? "Diamond." Shaw? "Diamond." His expression brooked no argument. On many days the plaintive cry of "Come on, Arn" to his old mucker Arnie Sidebottom, the fast bowler he most relied on, filled the air from dawn to dusk.

As Yorkshire politics raged around the dressing room, he tried to build a protective wall. "We are a cricket club, not a debating society," he once raged about the malcontents, the prejudiced and the hangers-on, and no plea for sanity was ever better put. He cared deeply and when Yorkshire lost, as in those days they often did, it hurt him deeply. If he helped them win, he didn't bother too much with false modesty but claimed the praise he felt he deserved.

No matter how vulnerable his team, he was always willing to shake up the game with a declaration and a run chase.

"But if we declare how do we know you will chase it, Bluey?" he was once asked by a more well-to-do captain on the county circuit.

"You pitch it up and we'll twat it," he replied. It was an oft-used response.

He didn't care hugely for journalists, the generous-spirited David Warner of the Telegraph & Argus, based in his home city of Bradford, being one exception. We were too embroiled in the political machinations of the time. Many a time would he observe me with incredulity after reading some naïve observation on a Yorkshire defeat.

"You know three-quarters of seven-eighths of sod all," he would habitually proclaim, his hackles rising.

Sometimes he changed the fractions.

"You only said five-eighths last time," I once observed with pretence at pride.

"It still adds up to f****** nowt," he blasted back.

Whenever his Yorkshire wicketkeeping position was threatened, firstly by Steve Rhodes and later Richard Blakey, he defended his status fiercely. It was an early indication perhaps of the resentful frame of mind that too often would hang upon him after retirement. On one occasion, when Bairstow was unfit, I praised in print a neat wicketkeeping display by his young stand-in, Blakey, in a Championship match at Scarborough. The next morning, on the walk to the ground, by happenstance Bluey strode out of the Black Lion pub into my path, glowered meaningfully at me for a full minute as we walked along in tandem before launching into a tirade in which my incompetence and Blakey's ability - or lack of it - to keep chickens may have gained a passing mention. His eyes blazed with fury, but such was his popularity that as we neared the ground he repeatedly had to break off to wish a cheery good morning to passers-by. "Hello Jack, hello Marianne." He liked to be on first-name terms with the entire crowd, or at least the ones he was still talking to.

Many a time would he observe me with incredulity after reading some naïve observation on a Yorkshire defeat. "You know three-quarters of seven-eighths of sod all"

Eventually, as North Marine Road grew busier with folk heading to the cricket, he lost his thread and in frustration asked where he had got up to. All I could do was chuckle weakly.

"I don't know what's wrong with you," he concluded. "I have given you the biggest bollocking you've ever had in your life and all you can do is laugh."

Something always happened at Scarborough. The sociability of the ground suited him. It was here that he took his world record-equalling catches against Derbyshire in 1982. It was here that a Yorkshire member, Bernard Wilson, a bearded ex-miner of fearsome countenance, once deliberately held up play on the final evening with a protest behind the bowler's arm. Overs were lost, Kent finished nine down and the match was drawn; Bairstow was apoplectic. It was here that he bawled from the middle for the press box to sit down when we became sidetracked by the sight of some sexual cavorting in the window of a nearby B&B.

Then there was his famous argument with Ray Illingworth, then team manager, in the Royal Hotel, which found its way into the newspapers. Bairstow was furious it had been made public and, suspecting gossip, never drank in Hughie's Bar - then a traditional after-match watering hole - again. "But Bluey lad," he was told. "We could hear it in the street."

With the British prime minister then, John Major, in 1992, two years after he quit first-class cricket © PA Photos

Often during times of tension, I felt a pint banged down in front of me, with the hope attached that it might put some brains in me. Arguments briefly flared, opinions were expressed, no prisoners were taken. He loved nothing more than to be the centre of attention, his voice often booming from what he would insist was the best bar in town, but as captain after a bad day he could sometimes be found drinking alone, caring deeply - dark moods swirling - about a county that others were destroying with their machinations. John Hampshire was one of the few to make reference to this during his playing days, drily remarking in Bairstow's testimonial brochure that when Bluey was down the whole world knew about it.

There were times when failure on the field had its funny side, such as when his successor as Yorkshire captain, Phil Carrick, called off a run chase while Bairstow was having a nap. Bairstow was oblivious, or resistant, to the decision and hit around him while Ian Swallow, a young batsman trying to make the grade at No. 3, blocked at the other end. Bairstow's end-of-over gesticulations to the dressing room to ask what the hell was going on were a joy. He would always want to go down fighting rather than abandon hope.

Swallow was also the unfortunate sidekick when he was underneath a skier at Abbeydale Park. "Swall, Chicken, George, Young 'Un," bawled Bairstow, all nicknames assembled, his stentorian tones enough to bring fright to any man; Swallow, by now having an identity crisis, never laid a hand on it.

To observe Bluey at work throughout the 1970s and, mostly for me, the '80s was to understand that heroic sporting statements are all the more interesting to my eyes when they come with flaws attached. Nobody captured his essence more than Carrick, a Yorkshire left-arm spinner and a team-mate since schooldays in Bradford. "He wasn't a great batsman, maybe he wasn't even a great wicketkeeper," Carrick said, "but he was a great cricketer."

David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps

Comments