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Test survivor Jonny Bairstow eager to stay on England treadmill

A grueling - but successful - winter across formats has not dented Bairstow's appetite

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Jonny Bairstow was back facing a red ball after time at the IPL, Lord's, May 29, 2022

Jonny Bairstow was back facing a red ball after time at the IPL  •  Getty Images

There is a Squid Game vibe to England's new teal training tracksuits, a fitting resemblance since their schedule has left multi-format players resembling competitors in a survival drama. Jonny Bairstow has been cast in many different roles over his decade-long Test career but his latest is that of the Korean TV series' protagonist, Seong Gi-hun - the only man left standing after a brutal winter of varying challenges.
Bairstow was the only England player to tour all three of the UAE, Australia and the Caribbean between October and March and emerge with both reputation and fitness intact, and in keeping with his general restlessness he travelled straight (or as straight as possible for a journey with at least two layovers) from Grenada to Mumbai.
He arrived at home last Monday night after two more months in a strict biosecure environment and left for St George's Park - England's football training base - the following morning for two days of training and fitness testing. On Sunday night, he travelled to Lord's ahead of the first Test against New Zealand on Thursday, where he is due to play as a specialist batter.
It is a schedule that is exhausting to think about let alone undertake, and one which underlines why Rob Key was so determined to split the coaching roles along format lines when he was appointed as England's managing director of men's cricket. The itinerary does not get any easier over the next 12 months, either.
A separate squad will travel to Amsterdam to play three ODIs against the Netherlands between the second and third New Zealand Tests, while there are a dozen more limited-overs internationals in three-and-a-half weeks between the one-off India Test and the end of July. Over the 2021-22 winter, there are tours to Pakistan (twice), New Zealand, Bangladesh and South Africa, as well as a T20 World Cup (and a series either side for good measure) in Australia.
It is a daunting prospect, and one which will stretch players' mental and physical wellbeing to the limits. Perhaps Bairstow might have been wise to skip the IPL in the circumstances but turning down an INR 6.75 crore (£690,000 approx.) contract from Punjab Kings would not have been easy; after a slow start to the tournament at No. 4, his form after moving up to open should ensure he is offered a retention for 2022.
"I feel good, to be honest," Bairstow said on Monday, speaking in the drizzle on the Lord's outfield after training. "I'm happy with where my body's at physically, and hopefully that is now the end of bubbles which is an excitement as well because that gives you an added amount of freshness - to be able to do some more normal things and to be able to leave your hotel."
He described the possibility of missing the first Test for some time off as "not something I've thought about," adding: "You know my desire to play for England, my desire to play Test cricket. That hadn't even come into my mind. I've never been one for resting when there's opportunities to play for England: it's extremely special.
With injury concerns hanging over all of England's cross-format seamers, Joe Root a peripheral figure in the T20I set-up and Ben Stokes openly prioritising Test cricket - "Ben won't play white-ball this summer," Eoin Morgan confirmed in a newspaper interview last week - Bairstow is the only member of the Test squad who can realistically be considered a first-choice pick in all three sides as things stand.
"There hasn't been a specific sit-down discussion as yet [about workloads] but obviously I want to be playing Test cricket," Bairstow said. "That is something that I really want to be doing. I'm sure that conversation will be happening over the next period of time, because if you are playing in all three formats, there are things you are potentially going to have to miss out on."
Bairstow has scored hundreds in two of his last four Tests - 113 in Sydney and 140 in Antigua - and will start the series at No. 5. That means he will keep Harry Brook, the in-form batter in the country after a remarkable start to the season with Yorkshire, out of the side and will bat between Root and Stokes. Intriguingly, he added that he would be practising his wicketkeeping this week, even with Ben Foakes due to take the gloves and bat at No. 7.
"I'm delighted with how I have come out of the winter," he said. "Naturally, I was disappointed not to start in Australia after playing last summer, but that's part and parcel of it. But the way I reacted and went about it and also the way I played, I was happy with the situations and circumstances that I scored my runs.
"I just want to be playing. If I'm batting at No. 5, that's great - it's something that I have done before, I've also done that and kept wicket. Is there a big difference between No. 5 and 6? I don't think there's a huge difference. Batting around Joe and Ben is something we've done for a huge period of time and we've been quite successful with that."
He has regularly made what he described as "tinkers" to his game in different formats, insisting that he was "really happy" with his net against the red ball on Monday, which "dropped back into where I wanted them". It will be a fierce challenge to maintain form, fitness and freshness over the next year, but the sense is that Bairstow would not have it any other way.
"I've been pretty pleased with how my Test career has gone," he added. "Yes, it's been stop-start, but there was a long period that I was in the side - over 50 Tests, I think. There will be ups and downs in careers. Not many people go through their whole career without blips in form and changes in circumstance. I am really excited. Bring on Thursday."

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98