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Feature

Bairstow stands tall

How the England wicketkeeper has reaped the rewards of putting in the hard yards on coming to grips with a technical flaw

George Dobell
George Dobell
15-Dec-2016
England's warm-up matches in St Kitts at the start of the 2015 Caribbean tour were, in many ways, lacklustre affairs.
So modest were the opposition (they were bowled out for 59 in the first innings of the first two-day game) that the teams were rearranged with England players loaned to the hosts to provide a sterner test. The only points of interest seemed to be Jonathan Trott's emergence as Alastair Cook's new opening partner, and the news from London that Paul Downton had been sacked as managing director of the England teams.
In retrospect, the second game also provided a first glimpse of something that was to prove more significant. Jonny Bairstow, who had not made the England side for the first game, came in at No. 4 for the St Kitts Invitational XI side in the second match and, using the unusually high backlift that has now become his hallmark, made a fluent 98 against an attack that included Stuart Broad, James Anderson and Ben Stokes.
"He timed the ball beautifully," Paul Farbrace, the England assistant coach, recalls. "He looked a million dollars."
Farbrace half-expected the improvement. He had spoken to Martyn Moxon, the Yorkshire director of cricket, just ahead of the tour and Moxon had remarked on some technical alterations that appeared to be working well.
"'Whatever you do,' he said to me, 'keep an eye on where the bat is before the bowler delivers,'" Farbrace says now. "He said, 'Please make sure it is above the stumps.' He really stressed it: 'Please do it.'"
"The aim was to make the bat come down straight. Before that, his head had often been outside the ball and the bat tended to come down from the direction of gully. He was missing full-length deliveries. By standing taller, his balance was better and the bat was able to come through straighter.
"Before that, he was always searching for a method that worked for him. But now the search was over.
"He is much more comfortable with his game and he has just gone from strength to strength. It sounds like a minor change but the results have been massive."
They sure have. Having averaged 42.99 in first-class cricket up until the end of the 2014 English season, with 11 centuries, Bairstow has averaged 64.81 since then, with 11 centuries. Furthermore, he goes into the Chennai Test - England's final Test of a busy year - having already set a new record for the most Test runs in a calendar year by a wicketkeeper and requiring 61 more to equal Michael Vaughan's England record of 1481 Test runs in a year (set in 2002).
Only seven men (Mohammad Yousuf, Viv Richards, Graeme Smith, Michael Clarke, Sachin Tendulkar, Sunil Gavaskar and Ricky Ponting, who did it twice) have reached 1500 Test runs in a year. For a specialist batsman, that is a fine record. For a wicketkeeper, it is exceptional. Nobody has scored more Test runs this year.
"Martyn deserves all the credit for that," Farbrace says. "He has known him his whole life, really. He played with his dad and he had seen him grow up. Whatever has happened, he has been there to pick up the pieces and encourage him. The support and consistency they have shown to Jonny at Yorkshire has been outstanding and England are now reaping the benefits."
Moxon sees it a little differently. He recalls the technical change as Bairstow's own idea and part of a package of improvements that saw him graduate from promising to consistent over the course of a few weeks.
"It wasn't me who suggested the backlift," Moxon says. "He worked that out for himself. We helped him drill it and reinforce it, but he had a period of self-reflection where he tried things and saw what worked and what didn't. He now trusts his method and no longer feels there is any need of chopping and changing it.
"My work was more about helping him control his emotions. He has always enjoyed being in the heat of battle, but there were times when his arousal levels took him past the line of control and meant he was going hard at the ball. I had to remind him to respect each delivery and prevent him from becoming complacent. I worked with him on making sure the point of contact was in front of the eyes and keeping him under control of what he was doing."
It was the attempt to play the ball closer to his eyes that convinced Bairstow to start tinkering with his technique. The 2014 season was over, and having not won a recall to the Test team since an ill-fated return in the last couple of Ashes Tests, he was searching for solutions.
"I was just messing about on the bowling machine in the nets at Headingley," Bairstow says now. "I felt I was playing the ball too far in front of myself and that was leaving some flaws.
"I wanted to slow the bat-path down, make myself play later and in front of my eyes rather than getting in front of myself. The objective was to play the ball later by making the bat travel further."
He also believes that his balance changed for the better.
"If you look at pictures of me batting at Lord's in 2012, I was low, my knees were bent, my head was across and my elbow was pointing to mid-off," he says. "I'm really crouched. It looks completely unnatural to me. That's why I was falling over and missing the full, straight ones sometimes. I try not to overthink batting - or anything, really - and I'm not a big one for video analysis, but I look a lot more natural now and everything seems to flow more easily."
The fact that he worked it out for himself is relevant. He was, he says, "taking in a lot of info" over the summer of 2012 as there was no shortage of advice from former players and coaches. "I wasn't sifting it very well," he says now. "Everyone wanted to help, but I wanted to keep everything as natural as possible. I really don't think about it much and that's the way I like it."
So keen were Yorkshire to ensure Bairstow's mind was not further cluttered, they resolved not to mention technique to him again.
"When he returned to Headingley after the 2013-14 Ashes tour, Jonny said he had received plenty of well-intentioned advice regarding his technique," Jason Gillespie, Yorkshire's head coach at the time, wrote in the Guardian. "We came to the conclusion this has inadvertently created more confusion in his mind. So we made a pact: the Yorkshire coaches agreed we would not speak to him about his method. No longer would he have support staff stopping him every second ball in the nets, telling him to change his grip, stance, backlift or alignment. Ultimately, we backed Jonny to take responsibility for his own game."
It took a while to win a Test recall. He was a frustrated onlooker throughout the Caribbean tour and missed both the New Zealand series and the first two Ashes Tests. But back at Yorkshire he was prolific, gaining confidence in his new technique by the match. By the time he won a Test recall - at the end of July 2015 - he had already scored five centuries and four-half-centuries in the season and was averaging an eye-watering 100.66.
"That success gave him more confidence in every way," Farbrace said. "You quite often see players doubt themselves when they are dropped by England, and Jonny probably went through a period of that after the 2013-14 Ashes.
"But he came back into the England side confident in his method. He felt more comfortable than he had in the past, and each time he practised he did so with the sense that he knew exactly what he was trying to achieve and with confidence in the way he went about things. He didn't score huge amount of runs in the UAE, but he was one of our better players of spin, and by the time he scored that century in Cape Town, well you felt the floodgates were opening."
But it is, as John Inverarity used to say, competence that breeds confidence. And Bairstow's confidence was built not on something as shallow as a couple of good net sessions, but the sense that he now had a technique that allowed him to be balanced at the crease. It has been the foundation of all the success he has enjoyed since.
In Cape Town, he made a maiden Test century, in his 22nd Test - an emotional affair on a ground where his father had often played in the English winter - and precipitated a run that saw him score three centuries in six Tests. For the first time in his career, he was an automatic selection in the side.
"That innings gave him confidence he could play at this level," Alastair Cook explains. "He's always had the talent.
"The Yorkshire coaches agreed we would not speak to him about his method. No longer would he have support staff stopping him every second ball in the nets, telling him to change his grip, stance, backlift or alignment. Ultimately, we backed Jonny to take responsibility for his own game"
Jason Gillespie, former Yorkshire head coach
"I remember the first time I saw him play: it was at Scarborough and I was really impressed. He timed the ball beautifully and we just couldn't stop him scoring. He made 60-odd. Clearly, he was very talented.
"But then he had a difficult introduction to international cricket and he has had to go away and work really hard on his game. He's come back a better player and a player who is more comfortable in their own skin. When you combine that with greater confidence, it all comes together.
"I suppose the most surprising thing is how consistent he has been and that is only credit to him for how hard he has worked."
The England environment developed by Farbrace and Trevor Bayliss might also be a factor here. Whereas some previous dressing rooms had appeared tense and divided, this one has been more welcoming. He was no longer seen as another player passing through but as an integral member of the side.
"When you know you're going to play every game, you don't doubt yourself in the same way as if you're playing for your place," Farbrace said. "You don't wonder how you're perceived, and over time the real you comes out.
"That's what we've seen with Jonny. In the past he was in and out of the team and it is probably only natural that you're a bit on edge. But now we've seen him relax and enjoy himself."
"It has helped enormously that he has felt part of the team," Moxon agrees. "In the past, there was a sense that every performance could be his last. You have to earn that feeling of security in the England team, but he has now.
"He has always been at his best when he is attacking. Now he can do that without worrying what anyone will think if he is out or thinking it will cost him his place. If you go out there thinking 'I mustn't get out', you're going to struggle. Now he can relax and express himself.
"He's driven, though. He has a very strong sense of wanting to prove himself to the people who doubted him. Once he had the technique and composure he needed, I always thought he would score a lot of runs."
Progress has not been completely smooth. His excellence with the bat in South Africa was contrasted with some less polished work with the gloves. Nobody doubted his worth as a batsman, but that success was tarnished a little by the catching blemishes.
"He was quite down about his keeping after the South Africa Test series," Farbrace recalls. "He had missed some chances that he felt he shouldn't have. There wasn't much time during the series to work on it, but we did have a chance during the ODI series."
They concluded that so anxious was Bairstow to ensure he didn't miss the outside edge, he had taken to standing a foot or so further to the right than might have been the case previously. But that meant that, as the bowler delivered the ball, he would find himself moving to his left in order to get back into line with it. If an edge then followed, he found himself with his weight on the wrong foot, his head out of line and poorly positioned to move for the chance.
"He pretty much worked it out for himself," Farbrace says. "And he's been a lot better since.
"The confidence he has taken from doing a better job with the gloves has undoubtedly helped his batting, and at the same time, the confidence he has in his batting has probably helped him with the gloves. He looks more comfortable in everything he does. He has matured as a person and a player. It's been great to see.
"And it's such a simple method he used when he bats. You feel there's not much than can go wrong with it. There's no reason he won't be able to stay in this run of form."
Moxon isn't in the least surprised.
"I know that sounds like being wise after the event," he says, "but I've known for a long, long time that he had a special talent. I've known for a long time that he can time the ball as well as anyone I've seen. I always thought the cream would rise to the top.
"And you know what? I think the next couple of years can be even better.
"His family have been through such a lot. It is great to see him - to see all of them - enjoying his success. He's worked bloody hard and he's enjoying a big year as a result. After all the disappointments and setbacks, it really has been great to see."

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo