Bairstow ready to wear gloves with pride
Jonny Bairstow goes into the opening warm-up game of England's tour of South Africa, against an Invitational XI at Potchefstroom tomorrow, knowing that he is at last England's first-choice wicketkeeper in Test cricket, having twice been handed the role mid-series following an incumbent's loss of form.
Bairstow, whom England's coach Trevor Bayliss confirmed at the weekend would start the Boxing Day Test at Durban, inherited the gloves for the final Test of England's tour of the UAE, at Sharjah last month, after Jos Buttler had mustered 430 runs at 23.88 in 12 previous Tests in 2015. And this time he believes he is ready to make the job his own, having originally been handed the role in invidious circumstances during England's whitewash tour of Australia in 2013-14.
On that occasion, again for a Boxing Day Test at Melbourne, he took over from Matt Prior with England in freefall, 3-0 down in the series and with the Ashes already gone, and he proved powerless to resist the tide with scores of 10, 21, 18 and 0 in a pair of crushing defeats.
Bairstow believes, however, that he is stronger for that experience. Though he does not doubt that Buttler has the wherewithal to battle back into contention, not least after his eye-popping 46-ball hundred in the recent ODI series against Pakistan, the chance to start the series with the gloves, having already earned selection as a pure batsman since the midpoint of last summer's Ashes, will help him to play a key part in what he terms a "massive" series.
"There's always healthy competition," Bairstow told reporters in Potchefstroom. "Jos has played some fantastic stuff in one-day cricket and Test cricket so the competition for places is there but that will drive us on to become better players and better people.
"You can never take anything for granted," he added. "Every spot within the side has got to be treasured and every opportunity you get you've got to try and take. So from game to game you're always wanting to do as well as you can and get a run.
"Hopefully I'll be able to secure that spot. I've only kept in three Test matches but it's an exciting time for me personally. I'm really looking forward to the challenge and with that comes a lot of responsibility."
Looking back on his baptism of fire in the 2013-14 Ashes, Bairstow was phlegmatic about the experience, from a personal point of view as well as that of the overall team.
"I think I've grown as a person over the last couple of years since the two Tests in Australia," he said. "The position of the squad and the morale in the camp is completely different from what it was going into those Test matches in Melbourne and Sydney.
"When you're 3-0 down against an Australian side that's flying it's never going to be an easy Test. So there's different circumstances that are around this group of players at the moment and it's an exciting time to be involved in English cricket."
As if being a Test wicketkeeper-batsman is not an onerous task in itself, Bairstow will have to match the standards of arguably the best current allround cricketer in the world, following South Africa's decision to hand AB de Villiers the wicketkeeping duties for the Durban Test, with Dane Vilas, who held the role during their recent 3-0 series loss in India, left out of the squad.
It is not exactly an onerous task as far as de Villiers is concerned. He has performed the role in 23 of his 102 Tests, including as a 20-year-old way back in his debut series against England in 2004-05, while his Test average in those matches is a remarkable 58.26. Seven of his 21 Test hundreds have come while doubling up with the gloves, most recently against West Indies at Cape Town in January.
"You want to do as well as you can against the best that you can," Bairstow said. "Obviously comparing yourself to someone like AB is going to be a fantastic challenge and if you do come out being the better of the wicketkeeper-batsmen then I will have had a very good tour.
"Having the confidence of the captain and coach going into the warm-up games and hopefully the first Test allows you to be relaxed and enjoy yourself," he added. "That's when I play my best cricket and hopefully I'll be able to do that not only in the warm-up games but going into the series."