The Ashes 2013-14 November 6, 2013

England's career 12th man

Jonny Bairstow appears to have lost the ebullience that initially won England over and now faces another trying time carrying the drinks on tour

If Jonny Bairstow did not already suspect that he will be extending his role as England's drinks waiter throughout the Ashes series, he will no longer be able to suppress the thought. While Michael Carberry produced the sort of innings designed to cement his place in the Brisbane Test, Bairstow for the second game running was not even selected. They might as well start fitting him for his ICC 12th man bib right now.

Bairstow will still have his uses, but that is becoming dangerously close to saying that he is being used. In theory, he is one of eight specialist batsmen contesting six spots. In reality, England's selection at Hobart suggests that his lot is to double up as England's deputy wicketkeeper, who can step in at the last minute if Matt Prior breaks a finger, and as a high-energy substitute fielder, ready to slip on to the field whenever England can get away with it.

Bairstow is an outstanding fielder and, in terms of the Ashes, you only have to utter the name Gary Pratt to know the invaluable impact a substitute can have - but it is not a role that international careers are made of. Only three months ago, Bairstow was part of an England side showered with champagne in Chester-le-Street when they retained the Ashes; now you would not give a XXXX for his chances.

England's planning under the stewardship of Andy Flower is too forensic for their strategy for Brisbane to have been stumbled upon after one excellent batting day in Hobart. They went into the match against Australia A knowing five of their top six. The one point at issue was whether to use Joe Root at No. 6 with Carberry at opener, or whether to retain Root as Alastair Cook's opening partner and make room for Gary Ballance, Bairstow's Yorkshire team-mate, down the order.

England's faith in Bairstow began to depart during their home Ashes series against Australia. The sight of his stumps splayed as a dominant hand led him into hitting across a full-length ball had become a common bone of contention before the series began and even his best score of the series - 67 at Lord's - possessed a slice of good fortune when Peter Siddle bowled him cheaply but overstepped in the process.

What was disturbing, though, was Bairstow's response. What others perceived as a weakness he failed to perceive as anything of the sort, at least not publicly. Perhaps there was an element of bluster. "I've no idea what people are saying about my game, but they can say what they like," he told the Daily Mail. "Everyone gets out to shots that are their strengths. People's strengths can be their weaknesses. But nine times out of 10 you'll hit those balls."

If the tenth occasion hits middle, halfway up, nine out of ten did not sound very good odds.

Bairstow's fall from favour was initially disguised by the experimental nature of England's side for the final Test at The Oval - a failed experiment, too - as they jettisoned him in favour of an extra allrounder, Chris Woakes, and second spinner, Simon Kerrigan. That option remains available to England should they need it, but in the shape of Ben Stokes and Monty Panesar.

Other trends were also working against Bairstow. The suspicion that Australia had found a length to bowl to Root - a length, just short of full, which might be even more productive on Australian pitches - encouraged England to keep their options open by adding Carberry to the mix, especially as he was in the form of his life. And regular observers of Yorkshire were adamant that Ballance was out-batting Bairstow on a regular basis. The assumption that Bairstow was still the batsman in possession when the Ashes squad was named was an illusion.

"Personally I would not choose Bairstow as the reserve wicketkeeper or sixth batsman. He has a serious technical issue with his batting that he needs to iron out away from the glare of an Ashes series"
Former England captain Michael Vaughan

Michael Vaughan, the former England captain, now sits on the Yorkshire board but he did not disguise his own concerns. "Personally I would not choose Jonny Bairstow as the reserve wicketkeeper or sixth batsman" he wrote in the Telegraph. "He has a serious technical issue with his batting that he needs to iron out away from the glare of an Ashes series. His backlift is too inconsistent … He is still a young kid with plenty of talent but he has to solve that problem if he is to have a sustained international career."

And that is the third reason Bairstow is in Australia: for regular tuition with Graham Gooch, England's batting coach. When he is not keeping his glovework in trim, he can expect thousands of throw downs. Gooch's shrill admonishment to play straight will be the voice that awakens him in a cold sweat at three in the morning.

Which brings us to the suspicion that Bairstow's usefulness as a brilliant fielder, or emergency wicketkeeper, is doing him a disservice. It is true that there is not much cricket about at the moment to detain him - although you could argue that a bit of Australian Big Bash would be beneficial if England do not seriously intend to play him. Bairstow, it should be pointed out, has had too many inactive periods for his own good.

For most of the past year, he has trailed around England's limited-overs sides without much hope of getting a game. Meanwhile Yorkshire Championship matches - opportunities for him to learn his trade, to play straight in match situations - have come and gone. When he get did a run of Championship games in late season, he averaged 40 (with 186 runs coming in one knock) but Ballance averaged 62.

Bairstow has become the ever-present England player with no serious role to fill: a full-time 12th man. His wicketkeeping, as solid as many in these days of non-specialists but far from outstanding, just seems to blur the issue. He still keeps wicket at Yorkshire, as did his father before him, convinced after much agonising that it will enhance his chances of international cricket, but the eyes of England's one-day coach, Ashley Giles, have been firmly set upon Jos Buttler.

At a time when young players find it difficult to press their claims in all three formats, Bairstow - with or without the gloves - nearly makes a convincing case in all of them.

He burst onto the one-day scene with a memorable 41 not out from 21 balls against India on a rainy, late-season night in Cardiff two years ago but played only seven matches in the following 12 months, without a half-century, before losing favour. England's faith was more entrenched in Twenty20 cricket, lasting 18 matches, but he has not played since England's tour of New Zealand early in 2013. The ebullience that attracted England in limited-overs cricket now invites suspicions about his ability to play long innings in Tests.

It is easy to suggest that Bairstow is a victim of cricket's multiple formats and that, at 24, with his England career in abeyance, he needs to remain true to those strengths. But there is no unanimity about what those strengths are. He might yet carry off the hardest trick of all and reach his peak as a strong performer in all formats. He still has time.

His challenge in the next two months will be to keep body and soul together, bruise Gooch's ankles with straight drives, hope for a quirk of fate that may propel him into the Test side when he least expects it, and pray for the day when he can actually get on to a field and regain his connection with a game that he can play so boldly. And, if he can run out Michael Clarke somewhere along the way, so much the better.

David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on November 9, 2013, 14:11 GMT

    Always thought it was a strange choice to take him along. England obviously weren't sure of his ability as a batsmen or keeper so why include him in the squad!?

    I am another one who would have taken Davies as reserve leeper.

  • Samuel on November 8, 2013, 23:49 GMT

    Agree he'd be better off playing cricket, which is why I struggle to justify his inclusion in the touring party in the first place: his keeping isn't anywhere near the level required for Test cricket currently and his batting has already struggled, so surely he'd have been better off developing, either with the EPP or grade cricket or wherever, and someone like Davies stepping into the understudy role. As it is, England are doing a similar thing with Bairstow that they did with Adil Rashid a few winters ago; dragging him around and stagnating his development, not encouraging it.

  • Alan on November 8, 2013, 15:14 GMT

    Bairstow needs to play cricket. He is a young man with talent which needs to be honed by playing. He has not been that well served by his masters and notwithstanding the illness of his Mother whilst he was in India it was apparent that as a very young man he was shabbily treated. When he gets the chance to play on a regular basis he does perform but the psychological dalliance of his masters has not created a workable playing field for him. he needs to play cricket and as some of us said over a year ago there would be nothing wrong with him actually playing in the Big Bash; at least he would be playing. The saga of having him sit on the sidelines and then when experiments fail saying "Ok Jonny your in" and then cutting him lose again when he gets his double digits and averages as well as much of the middle order is idiotic. The English management need to shoulder some blame here for their poor performance. The great wicket keepers were not all technically correct. Surprise

  • John on November 8, 2013, 13:11 GMT

    @Englishfan on (November 7, 2013, 20:51 GMT) - Carberry played with freedom for Hants but when he played for Eng in the ODIs he played just like Cook and Bell. Not sure if it's freezing under pressure or whether that's the rigid formula Eng use?

  • Paulo on November 7, 2013, 20:51 GMT

    @Optic James Vince has a good temperament and technique and has scored runs so is more deserving than Bairstow, who with only 4 50s and no hundreds and an average of 30 can be classed as a failure. I see Vince as vital for us in the future in ODI cricket as well because he can score quickly and bat through, unlike Bell and Cook. But I'm a Hampshire fan so take with a pinch of salt.

    On Woakes he has performed well in the championship and was respectable on his test debute. I was wrong on Stokes- he's a bits and pieces cricketer so I was being harsh on Bairstow on prefering Stokes.

    On Chopra he is probably nearer to the England side than you think because of the Ashley Giles Warwickshire dream. Moeen just looks like he could be reliable, and his spin is useful.

    @Brussels Lion fair enough on Roy and Sales. Perhaps I should have said he's ahead of Robson and Wells and other Lions picks such as Lees.

  • John on November 7, 2013, 18:57 GMT

    @Optic on (November 7, 2013, 16:41 GMT)

    I have mixed views on Eng dropping Nick , but as I've said to another poster re the roads in NZ - May I say/ask 2 things

    1 - Nick was also under huge pressure as he was playing under the background discussion being him being replaced by Root - a series before it actually happened.

    2 - Which other England player scored 2 tons on the roads in that test series?

    Nick was in horrid in the return series but there were many horrid performers in UAE who never paid with their places. What did disappoint me was that they asked Nick to guest for Worcs vs Aus when they'd obviously already made their minds up as Nick did well in warm up games for Somerset and Worcs whereas the 2 Yorkies both failed in their warm up game.

  • GARY on November 7, 2013, 16:41 GMT

    @Brad Lister Or could it be more likely that they've seen what Compton is all about and decided he simply wasn't good enough. His last 6 innings for England he could hardly get out of double figures and looked a nervous wreck and the only time he scored where on roads in NZ. That even Peter Fulton scored back to back tons on. Also it was against a very average NZ attack. Add those to the fact he still only averaged 32, when he's supposed to be at his peak powers as an experienced player that knows his game inside out. He might feel hard done by over Carberry but he only has himself to blame for England moving on, just like they did with Morgan, Bopara, Patel and plenty of others.

  • GARY on November 7, 2013, 16:33 GMT

    @ Englishfan Could explain you're reasoning behind how Bairstow would be behind the likes of Vince who's had one good season in Div 2 and hasn't been anywhere near an England side, Woakes who isn't good enough in either discipline and for me Stokes who is a poor man Woakes. Then you also pick 2 guys in Chopra and Moeen Ali who've both had one decent season under the belts, have a career average of 37 and also both are top order players. You're reasoning make absolutely no sense simply because most of those guys are no where near the England side because they are good enough, so how can he be behind them.

  • Ray on November 7, 2013, 13:45 GMT

    Different ways to look at the Root/ Bairstow experiment. One view is that the selectors have recognised their error relatively quickly and made the necessary adjustment. Alternatively, you could wonder why they felt the need to make the change in the first place? Root was settled and scoring runs at #6; Bairstow was hardly settling the world alight and Compton was doing OK.

    Got to feel for Compton. Fair play to Carberry, he's come in and made runs but the case for taking him on this tour in front of Compton was hardly overwhelming: Carberry's form in the ODIs was indifferent, and his record last season was no better then Compton's. Does make me think that Compton is being punished for speaking his mind.

    @Englishfan: I would also have gone with Davies as reverse WK...Bairstow is front of Hales & Roy in the pecking order; I reckon that I'm ahead of those two at the moment!!

  • Ray on November 7, 2013, 13:30 GMT

    The reason that ".. Bairstow is in Australia ... is for regular tuition with Graham Gooch...". Surely, the reason any of the squad should be there is to play cricket against Australia? Are there no coaches left in England who can teach Bairstow how to play straight?

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