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McCullum backs Bairstow: 'I'm sure Jonny will come good'

England coach unconcerned by form of Jonny Bairstow and Joe Root ahead of must-win Ranchi Test

Jonny Bairstow has been backed to rediscover his form by England coach Brendon McCullum. Bairstow made 0 and 4 in the 434-run shellacking in Rajkot, continuing an awkward fourth tour of India in which is he averaging 17.00 from six innings.
Ben Stokes predicted big things for Bairstow at the start of the series. With Ben Foakes taking the gloves, the England captain believed a role exclusively as a batter could unlock a Bairstow purple patch akin to the summer of 2022 when he became the original Bazball poster boy. "We saw what we managed to get out of him, and I don't want him to worry about anything other than batting at five, getting runs and what's in front of him in the here and now," Stokes said. It has not worked out as planned.
With England trailing 2-1 in the series there will be selection decisions to ponder ahead of the fourth Test in Ranchi, which begins on Friday, but McCullum gave a strong indication Bairstow will retain his place in the XI for what would be his 99th Test cap.
"You know I can't answer that, I haven't even seen the wicket," McCullum said when asked about Bairstow's position. "But I'd anticipate Jonny would be playing, yes."
Dan Lawrence is the only spare batter in the squad, having replaced Harry Brook who pulled out of the tour for a family matter and is unlikely to return. Lawrence, however, is yet to feature under McCullum and Stokes.
England want to give Bairstow every chance to access the explosiveness of two summers ago. He struck four centuries in Stokes' first six matches, including twin hundreds in the one-off Test against India at Edgbaston. His 681 runs were scored at a rate of 96.59, and an average of 75.66.
He has struggled to match those numbers upon returning from a broken ankle that kept him out of the final Test against South Africa and the 2022-23 winter tours of Pakistan and New Zealand. Since the start of the 2023 summer, his 424 runs have come at 30.28, with just three fifties albeit one an unbeaten 99 against Australia at Old Trafford.
His first-innings duck at Rajkot was his eighth against India. But it is worth noting his dismissal second time around - lbw missing a sweep off Ravindra Jadeja - was the first time he has been out playing an attacking shot. That, McCullum feels, is the problem.
"Yeah look, he's not scored the volume of runs he would have wanted and a couple of times he's got out kind of mildly for someone who's got the power game Jonny's got," he said.
"I don't have concerns over him. I'm not blind but he's done so well for us and he's had such an impactful career. We know that a top-quality Jonny Bairstow is as good as anyone in any conditions. So from our point of view, we've got to keep on giving him confidence and block out a lot of the external noise as well and keep him really present and focused on what he's trying to achieve, and I'm sure Jonny will come good."
Over the coming days, McCullum will opt for a more human touch with someone he describes as "a little bit different… but that's in a good way". Doing right by the person above the player has worked well for Stokes and McCullum thus far, and the 2022 Bairstow - who they encouraged, emboldened, and, at times, reassured - is a testament to that.
By contrast, McCullum will take a hands-off approach with his other out-of-form senior batter, Joe Root. Another set of low scores has England's second-highest Test run-scorer nursing 77 runs at an average of 12.83. McCullum could not be less concerned. "It's Joe Root, crikey. I mean, seriously? The law of averages suggests he'll fill his boots in the next two."
McCullum also defended Root's ramp shot in the first innings, which triggered a collapse of 8 for 95 on day three. England relinquished a position of 224 for 2, giving up a first innings lead of 126 to India, who were without R Ashwin at the time. It was a critical passage of play.
McCullum also took aim at those who say the new approach is not suited to Root. The start of the series has seen his career average drop under 50, and his average under Stokes to 50.12. It is still greater than during his captaincy (46.44) but has now dipped below the 52.80 he managed in the first four years of his career under Alastair Cook.
"I think he's averaged about 50 with that shot [previously 60, now 30], plus what's happened after he's played that shot previously. He's got out twice doing it. You can get nicked off defending one or trying to drive one through the leg side. I don't know if it is as high risk shot in the modern game as what it appears in the previous game.
"I would say that his statistics in the last 18 months or so, whilst people see a shot like that and they go 'oh, Joe Root is struggling to deal with this new regime' - but have a look at the numbers. He's averaging higher. He's striking at a higher rate. His impact on the game is still very, very significant.
"Imagine if this becomes the norm for Joe as well, with the talent that he possesses and the history that he's got. And then what's the ceiling? So this is a point: do we want just a normal Joe Root, or do we want a Joe Root that is even better. How many games are we going to win if that happens?"
Two more would do for now. Having recovered to square the Ashes after defeat in the second Test at Lord's in similar circumstances to Rajkot - a first-innings collapse of 9 for 137 after Nathan Lyon was ruled out with injury - England do have previous for coming from behind in five-match series. But McCullum was clear he was happy with the method and believes focusing on the mistakes here and last summer would be counter-productive.
And though many hope the lessons from this defeat will lead to a more defensive approach, the team will double-down for a must-win game in Ranchi.
"That's not a conversation we've ever had because then you're starting to put peripheral thoughts into guys' minds and the whole idea is to free them up to allow them to make good decisions in the moment, to be totally present, and to be able to then adjust their games to be able to do so. To me that almost puts a limitation on what you can achieve.
"Ultimately, if you're going to beat India in India you've got to be able to be good enough against every single one of their bowlers regardless of if they are a man down or not. I wasn't against the method that they took, that we went out there with. It obviously didn't work on this occasion and we're going to cop that sweet, but it might work next time.
"If you have got one crack at life you may as well enjoy yourself and remain positive throughout things, there's lots of people who see the grey sky not the blue. And to me that's not necessarily how you go about things, and it's certainly not how you want to play as a cricket team when you've got this much talent that sits amongst it.
"Yes, we will get it wrong at times. Guys in their own way will process that and be able to smooth out some of those rough edges. But a general conversation among the group about, 'we didn't do this right, we need to do this next time' - it's detrimental to what you're trying to achieve and you need conviction in your methods.
"We've got to cop this one sweet but we look forward to the opportunity."

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo