Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket
At the start of the summer, it wasn't out of the question that Jonny Bairstow's Test career was done and dusted. He finished a dispiriting tour of India with three ducks in four innings in Ahmedabad, and with Dan Lawrence joining the likes of Zak Crawley and Ollie Pope at the vanguard of a new generation of England middle-order batters, it seemed that his pre-eminence in England's white-ball squad might finally take full-time precedence.
Now, however, everything's back up for grabs. Following his recall for the first Test at Trent Bridge, Bairstow's senior status will be plain for all to see this week, in a second-Test squad that has been dramatically shorn of so many of its usual suspects. With Ben Stokes absent, and Stuart Broad and James Anderson also set to be sidelined by injury, there could be no-one bar the captain Joe Root boasting more than Bairstow's haul of 76 caps come the first ball on Thursday.
"It would be a big loss, naturally because they've (Broad and Anderson) got a thousand Test wickets between them," Bairstow said on the eve of the match. "But with that comes an opportunity for other people. When we've seen that previously in the summer, in the Pakistan [ODI] series, there were opportunities that arose for other people coming in and they rose to those challenges."
Bairstow continued to look at the bright side, hoping for "someone to come in and step up", while explaining that England were well-prepared for these speed bumps.
"I don't think it's too much of a de-stabiliser to be honest," he said. "With the nature of professional sport, there are going to be injuries at times, there is going to be illness, it can happen overnight and you've got to be adaptable within the group. That's what we have been. Whether it's in South Africa [in 2019-20], rewinding to when everyone was unfortunately poorly, or other occasions."
To be fair, Bairstow has overcome so many logistical challenges already this year that a bit of team uncertainty on the eve of a Test match is nothing much to faze him. "I've been busy," he conceded, after a 2021 itinerary that began with two Tests in Sri Lanka, continued with a bout of quarantine in Ahmedabad ahead of his two Tests in India, a packed one-day campaign, and a successful IPL, and culminated in his arrival at Loughborough at 1.30am, ahead of the Trent Bridge Test, fresh from the second of his two match-winning performances for Welsh Fire in the Hundred.
"You're going from playing a Hundred game the night before, and trying to hit as many balls as possible into the River Taff, which was great fun, to then facing Broady and Ollie Robinson with a Dukes ball," Bairstow said of his build-up to that Test recall. "So there's definitely many differences within that process.
"But I was content, I was happy," he added, after scores of 29 and 30, which - Root aside - represented England's most consistent run-scoring in the Test. "It was obviously slightly different to the week before, but to spend a decent amount of time at the crease was pleasing. I didn't go on to get a big score but if I keep doing what I was doing in those two innings, keep with that method and mindset, then hopefully there is going to be a fairly big one to come fairly soon."
Expectations of England's team are fairly low at present, given their struggles to assert themselves either against India or in their 1-0 series defeat against New Zealand earlier in the summer, and changes in the batting are on the cards as well, with Moeen Ali set to return at No. 7 after his own blazing performances in the Hundred, and Haseeb Hameed a strong chance to earn his own recall after four years, given the recent struggles endured by Crawley and Dom Sibley at the top of the order.
All of which means that England's middle order could have an improbably familiar look to it, given that Root, Bairstow, Jos Buttler and Moeen are all more familiar with one another in the triumphant 50-over format than they have been of late in Test cricket. It's a prospect that Bairstow welcomes, given how important the team's mindset has become in this extraordinary summer, when opportunities for conventional match practice are so vanishingly scarce.
"It's a fair point," he said. "Having relationships and experience within that middle period there is something that we can latch on. It is a very fun experience, being out there together in the middle, and being able to recall those experiences and relish those partnerships that you're able to have. Hopefully we'll be able to have a chuckle while we reflect on what's been a positive, successful partnership between individuals, but also as a collective."
Just as Bairstow's return to the Test team coincided with a run of success in the Hundred, so Moeen is back with his form and confidence brimming over, after a brace of blazing performances for Birmingham Phoenix in the past week. And speaking from personal experience, Bairstow admitted that feeling good about your batting, no matter the format, is a huge part of cricket's mental battle.
"If you're coming back in with confidence and off the back of scoring runs, no matter what format it is, and you are able to harness those approaches and you're going out with an amount of confidence that's out there, then I think it's great," he said.
"Mo's coming back in and he's been striking the ball very nicely in the Hundred. We know Mo's quality within Test cricket. He was the second-fastest [England player] ever to 100 Test wickets and 2000 Test runs. Now, that doesn't come by coincidence. In Mo, we've got someone that's extremely skilful, with a lot of experience, and he brings a lot to the side."