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On days like this, Jonny Bairstow just looks the part

Batter shows great mental fortitude to rescue England on a poignant day in a poignant week

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
One might have assumed that England's batting had reached rock-bottom during that final-day debacle at Melbourne. But when Jonny Bairstow walked out after lunch on day three at the SCG, with his side beached on a scoreline of 36 for 4 after 53 consecutive dot-balls, it was clear there was still potential for an even greater ignominy.
Bairstow's third ball, from Australia's captain and World No.1 bowler Pat Cummins, reared fiercely past his outside edge; his seventh ballooned dangerously into the gully after fizzing off his upper arm. At the other end, with a grimacing Ben Stokes in his sights, Scott Boland had just completed his fifth consecutive maiden of the innings, to take his analysis from the start of that Melbourne second innings to a frankly ludicrous 9-6-7-8. Life was tough.
And yet, by the end of a torrid day that also included a gruesome blow to the thumb and a tea-time altercation with an abusive spectator in the Members' Stand, Bairstow had notched up England's first century of the Ashes campaign, and his first in Test cricket since the tour of Sri Lanka in November 2018. Back then, his propensity for mind-over-matter performances had enabled him to succeed as England's new No.3 at the very first time of asking; now, he was once again rising above some distinctly sub-optimal circumstances to reinject some pride into a lampooned batting line-up.
"I'm absolutely over the moon, to be really honest with you," Bairstow said afterwards. "It was the hardest one so far, in the circumstances, but we just put the graft in and obviously that partnership with Ben was a big one. Yeah, it was tough out there, and I'm really delighted with it."
On days like this, Bairstow just looks the part - tenacious, pugnacious and, as he grew into his knock, increasingly combative and free-flowing - which is why England are so addicted to the idea of him as a Test batter, in spite of a mid-30s average that, after 80 Tests, seems unlikely ever to get that lasting nudge northwards.
Part of that, of course, comes down to Bairstow's pivotal significance to England's white-ball fortunes - the format of the game that has been the ECB's primary focus for most of his Test career - but even within that dual focus, he's been more messed about than most of his multi-format contemporaries. Were it not for the fact that his injured thumb has necessitated the call-up of Sam Billings as wicketkeeping cover, he might already be preparing to take the gloves back from the desperately out-of-touch Jos Buttler at Hobart next week.
When asked if he'd been given the chance to "optimise" his Test batting in recent years, Bairstow struggled to come up with a diplomatic answer - which was revealing in itself. "As a multi-format player, when you are playing red-ball cricket, it is Test cricket," he said. "And when you're not, you're obviously playing white-ball cricket, fortunately enough for England. So it's Catch-22, isn't it?"
And yet, in a curious sense, Bairstow's familiarity with red-ball upheaval perhaps played to his strengths in this particular innings - given how put-upon England have been all series long, and how much emphasis had been placed on the players' mental resilience, both in the build-up to an unprecedentedly compromised campaign, and especially now that the Ashes have been lost so ignominiously.
"It's not been easy over the last two years, with Covid and travelling and bubbles, and everything like that," Bairstow said. "Coming to Australia, we'd normally have a couple of warm-up games, but with the T20 World Cup in the UAE and then the quarantine period, and then the weather around Brisbane, that wasn't the case. So you've got to go to the canyon, haven't you, and look at previous experiences that you've had, and that's exactly what I've done."
For this particular innings, however, Bairstow had an additional layer of mental fortitude to carry him through to the close - one that he hinted at in his post-match comments but understandably felt no obligation to articulate directly.
The first day of this Test match, January 5, was also the anniversary of the death of his father David, the former Yorkshire and England wicketkeeper, who took his own life in 1998. Add to that the fact that his mother, Janet, has fought her own battle with breast cancer, then to reach this latest milestone on Sydney's Pink Day too, in commemoration of Jane McGrath, was additionally poignant.
Sure enough, Bairstow's celebrations - after piercing what he described as a "naughty" wall of off-side fielders in Cummins' final over of the day, for a milestone-sealing boundary through backward point - were raw and raucous, just as they had been six years previously at Cape Town, when he had brought up his first Test century once again in his father's anniversary week, in the 2016 New Year's Test against South Africa.
"You've known me for long enough now to know how much that will mean," Bairstow told David Gower, his dad's former England team-mate, on BT Sport at the close of play. And when asked later about the extent of his thumb injury, a jarring blow on 60 from a Cummins lifter, he conceded that the occasion had played a big part in his refusal to retire hurt.
"I made the decision to stay out there," he said. "The medics can give you advice, but ultimately, you're out there playing in an Ashes Test match, a New Year's Test match on Pink Day at Sydney, in front of a crowd. It's going to take a lot to get you away from that."
Bairstow's fortitude was augmented, he added, by some technical tinkering with the help of James Foster, the wicketkeeping coach, in the indoor nets before the start of this innings. "We literally had a bit of fun this morning and just went back to something from years ago," he said. "You can look at technique a lot, but you've got to keep it natural about the way that you're moving. Otherwise you become a bit clunky and a bit too rigid.
"And that's what I feel sometimes I got to," he added. "I was trying to be something that potentially I'm not. One of my strengths is putting the pressure back on the bowlers, and running between the wickets, and trying to get them off their length to then give me a different ball. And in some ways, I wasn't necessarily doing that. But that also comes with spending time out in the middle, consistently."
They were revealing remarks from a player who is all too easily criticised for his failings at Test level - in particular, perhaps, his tendency to get bowled with the same leg-sided set-up that frees him up for so many white-ball cover-drives - when he perhaps more than any other player epitomises the choices that England's star names are required to make in their attempts to achieve excellence in three formats at once.
Today, his set-up was more pointedly off-sided, to cover off those stumps, but the bullish brilliance that Bairstow has consistently shown in white-ball cricket over the past six years, and which was instrumental in the 2019 World Cup win, was back in evidence in the latter stages of his Sydney knock - not least once Mark Wood had joined him in a rollicking seventh-wicket stand of 72 that carried the fight deep into the evening session.
But crucially, he had gone through the gears by that stage too, a process that cannot be fast-tracked against an attack of Australia's quality, for all that England's batting frailties have left them in a rush for runs all series long.
"You've got to earn the right to show the intent," Bairstow said. "You can't be reckless with it. It's about being positive in your movements, your body language, the way in which you address the crease, leave the ball. There's many different ways in which you can put pressure back on, but in those situations, you've definitely got to earn that and execute, and today we executed it well."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket