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Blaming Jonny Bairstow for England's defeat would ignore wider context

Bairstow is only partially culpable for his batting struggles since his recall

George Dobell
George Dobell
06-Mar-2021
Jonny Bairstow's lean run against India continued, India vs England, 4th Test, Ahmedabad, 1st Day, March 4, 2021

Jonny Bairstow's lean run against India continued  •  AP Photo

Like taking out your frustrations at the waiting times in A&E upon the receptionist, blaming individual England players for their series loss in India might be understandable, but it's largely facile.
Of course, these results look ugly. And more than the results, the margins of the defeats (317 runs, 10 wickets and an innings and 25 runs respectively) and the paucity of the batting efforts jar: for any team to average 144 over their most recent seven innings is clearly inadequate.
Experience suggest that, in such circumstances, there will be casualties. Four of the team that played the Sydney Test of 2014, for example - Michael Carberry, Kevin Pietersen, Scott Borthwick and Boyd Rankin - never played another Test for England.
Some will suggest that this defeat should prove a similar watershed moment. And it's true, a few England players - not least Dom Bess and Jonny Bairstow - may have played their last Test for a while.
In such moments, though, it is important to maintain some perspective. Yes, these last three Tests have seen England humbled. And yes, they have exposed faults within the side - and the system - that will take time and effort to remedy. Most pertinently, it will remain desperately tough for England to win in India if they do not learn to bowl and play spin far better.
But England had won their previous four series, two of them (in South Africa and Sri Lanka) away from home. They had, until the second Test of this series, won six successive Tests in Asia. Barely a day before the fourth Test ended, it seemed they had earned themselves an unlikely opportunity to level the series. Maybe they simply came up against a better side, in conditions which they rarely encounter. Really, was it realistic to expect them to win?
Indeed, there is a strong case to suggest that by winning a Test - a result that proved beyond them on their previous tour of India - England exceeded expectations. In this era, it is hard to think of any XI that England could have put out which would have won this series. England face a significant challenge to retain their impressive home record when India travel to play them later in the year.
No doubt, their rest and rotation policy caused some issues. But possibly fewer issues than if there had been no such policy. Who knows how many of this squad might have chosen to miss the tour without it? Or even opt out of Test cricket altogether? It's unrealistic to expect players to forego opportunities in the IPL or to spend up to five months in a biosecure bubble. Rest and rotation doesn't just seem responsible; it seems essential.
This England team is clearly far from perfect. One or two areas are in urgent need of attention. But if anyone thinks there are loads of obviously better candidates in county cricket they are deluding themselves. The truth is much grimmer than that.
Consider this, for example: when was the last time the county game produced a top-three batsman who proved an undisputed success at Test level? You could argue it was Joe Root (who averages 39.16 in the top three) who made his Test debut in 2012. Perhaps it was Jonathan Trott (42.94) who made his debut in 2009, or Alastair Cook (45.17) who made his debut in 2006. But either way, it's been a long time. There are no quick fixes to the problems facing English cricket.
Perhaps that context is most important in evaluating the career of Bairstow. His first-ball dismissal here, flicking one to leg slip, betrayed a mind scrambled by doubt and failure. And you can understand why: it was his third duck in four innings in this series, and meant that, in his most recent nine Test innings against India, he had failed to score on six occasions, with a top score of 28 and an average of 5.77.
It's not just against India that he has struggled. Since May 2018, Bairstow has averaged 23.17 in 22 Tests. For a man who averages 50.74 in first-class cricket for Yorkshire - a benchmark that is likely to prove beyond any of those who may replace him - that is a troubling level of under-achievement. It is entirely possible that he has played his last Test.
That date - May 2018 - is relevant, though. For that was when Bairstow was asked to move up the order. It was an intriguing decision: Bairstow had, over the past two-and-a-half years, averaged 47.07 with the bat in Test cricket. In 2016 alone, he had scored 1,470 runs, a record for a Test keeper in a calendar year. He had improved significantly with the gloves, too. His role wasn't really a weakness that required strengthening.
But England wanted to find room for Jos Buttler. And fearing that he might struggle in the top or even middle order - where most specialist batsmen might be expected to play - they picked him as a No. 7.
The problem with that was, England already had several players who looked at their best at No. 6 or No. 7. And with Ben Stokes locked in at No. 6 at the time, Bairstow had to be promoted to No. 5.
Later, when Buttler struggled to merit a spot as a specialist batsman (he averaged just 25.10 in 2019), Bairstow relinquished the gloves - more accurately, they had to be torn off his hands - so Buttler's continued selection could be justified. As a result, Bairstow found himself in the side as a specialist batsman and, at times, obliged to bat as high as No. 3.
There's a reason why Bairstow made his name batting in the middle order for Yorkshire. For all his ability, he is less confident against the Dukes ball when it is at its hardest and most helpful for bowlers. While his propensity to push at the ball is often an asset in limited-overs cricket, where the white ball hardly moves laterally, and in first-class games when the ball is a little softer, it is a potential weakness against higher-quality, quicker bowlers or spinners. At Test level, he averages 42.66 at No. 6 and 42.35 at No. 7, but only 27.74 at No. 5 and 30.76 at No. 3. Only one of his six Test centuries has come above No. 6 in the order.
His temperament is relevant, too. Like many allrounders, Bairstow flourishes in the knowledge that, if he is struggling with one discipline of his game, he can still contribute with the other. Until May 2018, Bairstow appeared to feel secure and valued in this side.
After that? Well, the statistics tell the story, really. You could argue that any Test player has to learn to play the moving ball and adapt to the needs of the team, and the prioritisation of Buttler has been vindicated by his improvement in the last year. But you would probably also have to accept that Bairstow was going along very nicely until he was destabilised by the latest bit of whimsy from selectors who claim they use data but give every indication of simply manipulating it to justify the prioritisation of their latest favourite.
How else can you explain the selection of Jason Roy as a Test opener? Or the selection of Ollie Pope to bat higher for England than he ever had for Surrey? Or the selection of Somerset's second-choice spinner who averages 47 with the ball in the Second XI Championship? Bairstow isn't a No. 3; judging him on his record there is like judging a racehorse on its ability to swim.
The job of a team's management is to provide a settled, calm environment in which a player is given the best chance to fulfil their potential. Bairstow has been shunted out of position, had his role changed and asked to adjust to accommodate other players - and he is hardly alone in having suffered that fate. Yes, he has failed to make that adjustment. But England's management are at least partially culpable for sowing the seeds of doubt and asking him to fulfil a role for which he was poorly suited and ill-trained.
None of this means the England selectors should necessarily retain faith in him. But it does mean that they should be realistic about whoever replaces him, and should provide them with a better chance to fulfil their potential. Playing against this quality of opposition will always be tough; doing it when you are insecure in your role and your position is almost impossible.
Blaming the players for the manner of England's series defeat may be understandable. But if English cricket actually wants to see change, it's the administration and management that requires attention.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo