When England moved Jonny Bairstow
down to No. 4 in their T20I series in South Africa towards the end of last year, many took it as yet more evidence of a fine player being messed about by the team's management. With England brimming with options to bat at the top of the order, someone needed to shift down into the middle order, and after several years as the Test team's fall guy
, he appeared to have been treated similarly by the limited-overs set-up.
In fact, the decision to move him into the middle order was a compliment, recognising that he is among England's best batsmen against spin. The No. 4 role is brutal in T20s: you're often facing the opposition's best spinner when you come to the crease, and are either tasked with continuing a fast start by scoring at a high strike rate straightaway, or rebuilding after early wickets and setting the game up for the hitters down the order.
For illustration of just how tough it is, look at Eoin Morgan
. Morgan spent the best part of a decade batting at No. 4 for England in T20Is, but has moved down to No. 5 and even No. 6 in their three most recent series, recognising that he is a better at starting his innings against seamers than spinners and looking to take advantage of the death overs. It is a role that only the elite - think AB de Villiers and Glenn Maxwell - have mastered.
In that light, it is worth reflecting on Bairstow's record at No. 4 since his shift down there: 200 runs in six innings, three dismissals, and a strike rate of 149.25. Bairstow has honed his craft against the turning white ball in two IPL seasons for Sunrisers Hyderabad, where he has scored at a strike rate of 145 against spin while averaging 32.25 runs per dismissal, and has been impressively dominant in England's middle order.
Bairstow was awarded with his 50th T20I cap on Thursday night by Paul Collingwood
, England's assistant coach, which served as a reminder of his experience in a middle-order role earlier in his career. Though it's often forgotten that England did actually play white-ball cricket before their rebirth in 2015, Bairstow batted between No. 3 and No. 6 throughout the first half of his T20I career from 2011 onwards, and the resulting exposure to a variety of different situations has proved beneficial
"Jonny's a very versatile player," Collingwood said on Friday. "His ability to be able to be very powerful against spin is very useful in the middle overs. He obviously played one of the better innings in English T20 history in the South Africa series
, the way that he got us over the line there, so there were a lot of positives from that.
"You've got to understand that this is a very difficult and exceptionally talented line-up to get into. Jonny has been phenomenal in that position. He's got a strike rate at No. 4 of 150. I think he's enjoying it quite a lot."
The innings that Collingwood was referring to - 86 not out off 48 balls
as England chased down 180 at Newlands - displayed Bairstow's adaptability and his power. England were 27 for 2 in the fifth over when he came to the crease, and were soon 34 for 3 inside the powerplay, but he combined brilliantly with Ben Stokes to destroy South Africa's spinners in the middle overs.
Though Stokes and Bairstow's 65-run stand in Thursday's fourth T20I
was not enough to see England home, it was reminiscent of their partnership at Newlands in their calculated aggression against the spinners in the middle overs.
In South Africa, the left-handed Stokes took down the slow left-armer George Linde, while the right-handed Bairstow hit with the spin to dominate the left-arm wristspinner Tabraiz Shamsi. While the contrast in their respective approaches against Washington Sundar and Rahul Chahar was less marked against India - Stokes retained his attacking intent against Sundar - it still displayed a willingness to make the most of advantageous match-ups.
As has been the case for several English batsman, Bairstow's main weakness is against left-arm spinners. He has scored at a strike rate of 164.58 against legspin in all T20 cricket since the start of the 2019 IPL, but at a significantly more conservative 118.75 against slow left-armers. Bairstow is not a guaranteed starter for Sunrisers in the upcoming IPL season, but two months' preparation in the nets working on that weakness should still be beneficial.
The upshot is that Bairstow's success in the middle order has vindicated their decision to move him, rather than Jos Buttler, down to No. 4. With Buttler now certain to front up as England's opener alongside Jason Roy, the majority of their batting order for the T20 World Cup is locked in.
Perhaps the only lingering doubt is around the place of Dawid Malan
, who has struggled for fluency and timing against India's spinners and their fast bowlers' offcutters in his first series in Indian conditions. Malan was given a vote of confidence by Collingwood heading into Saturday's decider, who stressed that his status as the ICC's No. 1 T20I batsman is "no fluke"
, but he will know that wherever he ranks, another failure will heighten the scrutiny on his spot. He only needs to look at the record of the man coming in behind him to realise the standards that are expected in those tricky middle overs.