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

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