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England need Bairstow at his best for T20 World Cup - they should bring him home from IPL

Despite a poor winter, Jonny Bairstow remains integral to England's hopes of defending their 2022 title

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Jonny Bairstow's stumps were rattled by Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Punjab Kings vs Sunrisers Hyderabad, IPL 2024, Mullanpur, April 9, 2024

Jonny Bairstow has made just 96 runs in six innings at the IPL, averaging 16.00  •  Associated Press

Trevor Bayliss declined to take the easy way out when explaining Jonny Bairstow's absence when his Punjab Kings side played Mumbai Indians on Thursday night.
Asked in a pitchside interview whether Bairstow had "done a Glenn Maxwell" and asked to be left out of the side, Bayliss was unequivocal: "No, that was our call," he said. "We just had to change things up. It was that time of the competition that we needed to do something a little bit better… just a little bit of a change to try and invigorate things."
It was an honest statement in an era when coaches often sugarcoat difficult decisions. Modern players are rarely dropped - rather rotated, rested or managed due to niggles. Kings opened with Sam Curran, their stand-in captain, instead of Bairstow and brought Rilee Rossouw into the side in his place.
Bayliss also made clear that Bairstow was not best pleased with the management's decision. "Jonny, over my right shoulder here, thinks he probably should have got a bit longer… it's a difficult one. We want to try and give guys as much of an opportunity as we can but with the situation we find ourselves in, we had to make a bit of a change."
It has been a long offseason for Bairstow, who first flew to India in late September ahead of the World Cup and will have spent the best part of six months there by the time he arrives home after the IPL. He is the only England player who has been involved in the 50-over World Cup, the Test series earlier this year and the IPL, and has struggled to make an impact in all three.
He has batted 25 times in India this winter across three formats and has hit only two half-centuries, against Bangladesh and Pakistan in the World Cup. His averages in the World Cup (23.88) and in the Test series (23.80) were almost identical, and in the IPL he has managed 96 runs in six innings, averaging 16.00 with a strike rate of 131.50. It has been tough going.
Bayliss stressed Bairstow's tournament is not necessarily over and Rossouw, his replacement, has made 10 runs in his first two innings. "There's a couple of guys missing out at the top of the order from this game, but that's not necessarily the end of it for those guys," Bayliss said. "We know they're quality players."
But there is an argument that it would be in Bairstow's - and England's - best interests for him to return home for a short break before the T20 World Cup. He is likely to be part of the squad that faces Pakistan in four T20Is at the end of May, and ending his IPL early would give him the chance to refresh mentally and physically ahead of an intense tournament in June.
England's selectors will meet in the next few days to pick a provisional squad for the World Cup, which will be released next week before the ICC's May 1 deadline. They can make changes before May 25, but after the debacle of Harry Brook's initial and Jason Roy's eventual exclusions last year, clear communication is essential.
There has been no indication that Bairstow is about to be dropped. He has hardly played T20 cricket since returning from his horrific leg injury - just 15 games in the last 12 months - but was player of the series in his most recent T20Is against New Zealand in September, which provided a reminder of how destructive he can be when he is anywhere near his best.
Rob Key, England's managing director, chairs selection meetings and told Sky's Cricket Podcast last week: "… we need to balance out some of the younger guys, like Will Jacks and Phil Salt coming into it and adding a bit of life. It's not about all young [players], it's about having a balance. That's where we're seeing the T20 World Cup."
With Ben Stokes making himself unavailable, Alex Hales retired from international cricket and Dawid Malan out of favour, England will need Bairstow - a senior player at 34 - to achieve that balance. He is likely to be carded at No. 4 in a middle order that will have to be flexible: in Stokes' absence, they are short on left-handed batters, but Bairstow's versatility has always been a strength.
England believe that T20 in the Caribbean rewards power over touch and will set their side up accordingly. Ben Duckett lasted one match in their 3-2 series defeat to West Indies in December before he was deemed surplus to requirements. Bairstow should fit effortlessly into a line-up of six hitters alongside Jos Buttler, Salt, Jacks, Brook and Liam Livingstone.
Bairstow has a clear preference to open the batting and generally does so in franchise T20, but England have always valued his ability to hit sixes against spin through the middle overs. Since December 2020, the majority of his T20I appearances have been as a middle-order batter and he can set games up for Brook and Livingstone as finishers.
Key often frames selection as making decisions based on what players are like at their best, not their worst. The question for England now is how they can help Bairstow get back to being the best version of himself. The answer? Bring him home from India, give him three weeks off and help him refresh before a shot at the World Cup.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98