Matches (15)
SA20 (2)
ILT20 (1)
BPL 2023 (2)
Ranji Trophy (4)
ENG-L in SL (1)
WI 4-Day (3)
Super Smash (W) (1)
Super Smash (1)
Comment

Jonny Bairstow and the art of zen batting

This summer, the England batter has ascended to a higher plane, occupied by the likes of Viv Richards, Virat Kohli, AB de Villiers and Sachin Tendulkar in the past

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
13-Jul-2022
Long Viv Jonny: since the start of this year, Bairstow has made nearly 1000 Test runs at an average of 76.46  •  Geoff Caddick/AFP/Getty Images

Long Viv Jonny: since the start of this year, Bairstow has made nearly 1000 Test runs at an average of 76.46  •  Geoff Caddick/AFP/Getty Images

My first bowling hero was John Snow, the England fast bowler who is best known in India for barging Sunil Gavaskar out of the way while he was attempting to run-out the Indian master, and in Australia for hitting Terry Jenner on his helmetless head with a bouncer.
At his best, Snow was a fabulous bowler, especially in Australia, where the bouncier pitches suited his whippy action and ability to make the ball kick from back of a length. He was recalled to the England side in 1976 and, well past his best, bowled with admirable control if not the previous menace. At Headingley, he dropped short to Viv Richards, who imperiously pulled him to the midwicket boundary. On commentary, the laconic Jim Laker said, "Not really a bouncer from John Snow, more a long hop, and suffice to say, Viv Richards simply crucified it." There is Viv, in a sentence.
The year 1976 was Richards' annus mirabilis. He made 1710 runs in 11 Tests at an average of 90 per innings with seven hundreds. His strokeplay drew blood from all who bowled at him, and the breath of those of us who watched on. Few batters have held such mastery over their opponents and fewer still, if any, have done so with such brutality.
This summer Jonny Bairstow has made four hundreds in five innings, each of them at critical stages in the match, and three of which have taken England to stunning fourth-innings victories, with a brutality all of his own. He bats with the sense that he doesn't much rate anyone who bowls a cricket ball, and from this comes enviable confidence. Bairstow's partnerships with Joe Root dovetail as if written in fiction and their boyish delight in each other's success smacks of a life together chasing exactly the glory they are now experiencing.
There is something beguiling about Root at the crease, as if the colours are coming to life on his canvas; in contrast there is something demonstrative about Bairstow, as if he is busy making a point. Which, of course, he is.
Jonny has been making a point most of his life. He aches to be loved - a mad desire in the cruel world of professional sport - but when the love comes, the relief is as plain to see as is the joy. Of all things in the sporting firmament right now, Bairstow's success is among the most fulfilling. The well-documented tragedy that has haunted him since the age of eight - the moment his father, David, took his own life - led to an aching, ever-arching sadness and to insecurity. He titled his autobiography A Clear Blue Sky presumably in the hope of finding one, and it is the blue-sky thinking offered by Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes that has set him free.
The Bairstow hot streak actually began in the dark old days, at the Sydney Cricket Ground in early January, where his brilliant first-innings hundred and ballsy second-innings 41 did their bit to stop England's bleeding. Inclusive of that match, his surge has been across eight consecutive Test matches and includes six hundreds for a total of 994 runs at an average of 76.46 and a strike rate of 76.22. Best of all, you can't help but think that he's only just out of the blocks as the player he can be. The most relevant point about this sparkling form is the match-saving and/or match-winning nature of each innings, as if he is keyed in to the ultimate challenge of performance, which is the ability to turn it on when it most matters.
Consider this: "I've never been a great technician," Bairstow said, "I've just stripped it back and tried to concentrate on watching the ball." You can imagine Richards saying a similar sort of thing, or Don Bradman even, because mind and matter are inexorably linked. A clear head and the ability to watch the ball onto the bat are essentials; setting up to attack leads to better, tighter defence because the footwork and head position have purpose, and finally, the obvious desire to dominate immediately threatens the bowler.
On a general level the most dominant batting I have seen came from Sachin Tendulkar during the 1997-98 series against Australia in India, when he plotted for Shane Warne and then mauled him. In an interview many years ago, Sachin said: "For a batsman, each day is different. The mental set-up, the way the feet move, the bat swing, all of it. You have to adjust to mood and moment." That's it? "Have faith in your talent, keep coaching to a minimum and trust your instincts." So, yes, that's it.
The power of the riposte is in Bairstow's batting. He has been left out and moved about so often that every moment at the crease is to be savoured and used as collateral, just in case
Tendulkar has talked about his "floating technique", the dream-like state in which he responds intuitively to conditions and tactics. What I think he means by floating technique is a zen mind. Barry Richards described it as a magical place where you feel as if you have control over the bowler's thoughts and come close to an accurate premeditation of each ball you receive. "Sometimes you set up for a delivery and then, if it is not quite as you imagined, you change your response early and without obvious discomfort, which is an art in itself."
The best single and utterly dominant Test match innings I have seen - though since matched by Ben Stokes' tour de force to beat the Australians at Headingley three years ago - was Brian Lara's epic unbeaten 153-run match-winner in Barbados, again against the Australians. Lara loved the Aussies. He first announced himself with a classic at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1992-93. They eventually ran him out for 277, and as Warne often says, they weren't going to get him out any other way.
Wisden recalled the performance in Barbados as "transcendent" and played by "the hand of genius". There was more: "Exhibiting the new awareness and maturity he had found in Jamaica, Lara brilliantly orchestrated the conclusion of an unforgettable match. He guided his men to victory as though leading the infirm through a maze."
Lara quite understood what Barry Richards once said, and with which Garry Sobers agreed, about reacting to the point of the ball's release from the bowler's hand to judge its length and decide on whether to play forward or back. He had not consciously done so himself but he thought it probably happened subconsciously. "What else would I watch?" he asked. Quite so. (Honestly, how can a batter pick the exact moment the ball leaves the bowler's hand and go forward or back because of it - it's mind-blowing.) He had no other insight to his own mastery except to say that he gave the first 40 minutes of any innings in the long form of the game to the bowler. After that, good luck.
More recently, AB de Villiers, Virat Kohli and Kumar Sangakkara have occupied the shadows. In fact, having watched the three of them bat in the modern genre of all three formats, it is reasonable to say that each stepped into the light that is greatness. De Villiers was routinely capable of the orthodox, the oblique and the outrageous, but we must not be lost in the deeds of T20 cricket. Rather, we should reference their performances in Test match cricket, where they set standards for the aspiration of others.
To illustrate this, I would pick de Villiers' 91 against Australia in Centurion in 2014, when he resisted Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris at their most punishing. While gifted colleagues such as Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis were laid to waste, de Villiers moved smoothly forward and back as if he were batting on the village green. Unhurried and unshackled, he transcended the pattern of the Test match, playing, I would guess, within Tendulkar's idea of the floating technique.
Of late, much has been made of Kohli's slip from his previous high level. Almost certainly, this has come from too much cricket and is, in itself, a lesson to those who rule about the killing of the golden goose. Kohli's attributes were first made unarguably apparent to the world by two superb hundreds against Australia in Adelaide, also in 2014.
In reference to the second of them, Sidharth Monga, writing on this site, said that Kohli attained "batting nirvana" during an unlikely chase that he threatened to complete almost single-handedly. "This was the 'zone' batsmen talk of, when conditions, match state, batting partners, bowlers don't matter. You just watch the ball and react to it. No premeditation, no eye on the future." The thing I most remember was the exasperation of the bowlers at the moment when they seemed to have beaten him, only for instinct and the fastest hands in the game to react and recover.
Tendulkar has talked about his "floating technique", the dream-like state in which he responds intuitively to conditions and tactics. Barry Richards described it as a magical place where you come close to an accurate premeditation of each ball you receive
Sangakkara benefited from an efficient technique, calm mind and immense self-assurance. The conditions and opponent were irrelevant to him, only the ball, on which he focused with an eagle eye. His record away from home was every bit as good as that on his own Sri Lankan pitches, and few players of any age can boast that on their CV. Peter Roebuck once described him as "the most polished and prudent of batsmen", to which I would add that his outward charm belied a feisty and immensely tough competitor.
As far as I can make out, Bradman leads the hot-streaks list with 1630 runs at 125.38 through eight consecutive Tests between 1934 and 1938 (imagine how many cricket matches Kohli would play in such a period!) Other notables in their very different ways are Graham Gooch - 1366 runs in eight Tests through 1990 and 1991; Ricky Ponting - over 1500 runs each in 2003 and 2005, with 12 hundreds; and Mohammad Yousuf with 1346 runs at 99.33 in 2006 . But next behind Bradman (I think) is Steven Smith's incredible 1391 from eight games in 2014 and 2015 at the average of 115.91. Some zen minds there, one imagines.
Back to Root for a moment. Eighteen players have scored 11 hundreds across 24 Tests and he is now one of them. The only other Englishman to have done it is Denis Compton. Those Tests began in Sri Lanka at the start of last year and nobody on the planet has played near the same number; indeed, Bairstow, Zak Crawley, Rishabh Pant and Cheteshwar Pujara with 17 are the closest. Root has made 2635 runs in this period with an average of 61.27. In lockdown, he turned the bowling machine into an opponent and batted away, hour upon hour, working on the concentration required for long innings and honing the tweaks to his technique that have made him the complete player he has now become.
The partnerships this summer between the two Yorkshiremen must sit alongside any by any pair of English batters. I best remember Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen in India in 2012 but I'm sure there are many more - presumably Len Hutton and Compton were good to watch together, and there must, on occasion, have been some magic between Ian Botham and David Gower. Of course, those who were in Cape Town in 2016 saw Stokes and Bairstow go nuts, and here is Bairstow again, reminding us all he is worthy of our amazement and affection.
Viv Richards' most famous partnership might be the one against England in an ODI at Old Trafford in 1984, where Michael Holding, batting at No. 11, made 12 while they put on 106 together for the last wicket. Richards' unbeaten 189 set the benchmark for all who followed. His innings were the most spectacular cricket shows on earth: inflammatory, irresistible, inspirational. His leg-side play fuelled the legend but it was the power of the riposte - the sense of vengeance - for a suppressed people that rang out the loudest. No wonder Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" is top of his hit list.
Without being quite the most spectacular shows on earth, the power of the riposte is also in Bairstow's batting. He has been left out and moved about so often that every moment at the crease is to be savoured and used as collateral, just in case. It is easy to understand the insecurity and even easier to imagine the unbridled delight that has come with redemption. The game wishes him well: there is so much left for Jonny to give, and so much love still to receive. He's just got to keep floating.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator