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Can Jonny Bairstow come to the four as England's Zampa zapper?

Prowess against legspin could prove critical in first big test of England's credentials

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
In theory, England's players were meant to arrive at the T20 World Cup on the back of a month of limited-overs cricket, spread across the IPL and tours to Bangladesh and Pakistan. In practice, half of their squad landed in Oman for a training camp in early October after a month's break from the game entirely.
With concerns about the prospect of a full winter on the road and uncertainty about their ability to see their families, four players - Jonny Bairstow, Jos Buttler, Dawid Malan and Chris Woakes - withdrew from their IPL contracts at relatively short notice. It was the sort of trade-off that multi-format cricketers find themselves making increasingly often, weighing up mental health, family time, financial gain and match practice and attempting to find a conclusion that keeps everyone happy.
While nobody would argue with their decisions, it has been notable that England's two star performers since the start of their World Cup campaign were both playing regularly for their franchises after the IPL's resumption: Moeen Ali, whose Powerplay wicket-taking has set up two convincing wins has spoken about the confidence he gained from his senior role at Chennai Super Kings, while Jason Roy has extended his run of form for Sunrisers Hyderabad after a month adjusting to the UAE's slowish surfaces.
By contrast, those coming in off a break have found things slightly tougher since arriving in the Emirates. Buttler hit 73 in the final practice game against New Zealand but has not quite looked at his fluent best since; Malan was scratchy in the warm-ups though will have benefitted from time in the middle in the chase against Bangladesh; and even Woakes, who has impressed in his first two outings, has admitted he "didn't feel too good" in the lead-in, finding his way back after a while without a game.
Perhaps the only man who hit the ground running was Jonny Bairstow, who immediately issued a reminder of his worth in England's middle order with innings of 49 off 30 against India and 30 off 21 against New Zealand in their warm-up fixtures. He has faced only 10 balls in the tournament itself, out cheaply in pursuit of quick runs against West Indies and pulling the winning boundary against Bangladesh, but there are positive signs with sterner tests to come.
Such is his importance to England's limited-overs set-up, it defies belief that this is Bairstow's first T20 World Cup since 2012, when he was a 22-year-old floating up and down the order in a side captained by Stuart Broad. He returns nearly a decade later as one of the world's premier limited-overs batters, and playing a clearly-defined role in this England side that has slipped under the radar.
Heading into their series in South Africa last winter, England had a big decision to make about the make-up of their batting line-up: Malan's form at No. 3 demanded inclusion but Buttler, Roy and Bairstow were ensconced in the first-choice XI and only Buttler had much recent experience batting outside of the top three. But England had faith in Buttler as an opener, giving their best batter the opportunity to face as many balls as possible, and instead moved Bairstow to No. 4.
To some it looked like another slight against a player who had been messed around by England's management throughout his career. In fact, it was a glowing endorsement. There is no tougher position to fill in a T20 batting line-up than No. 4 given the range of situations batters find themselves facing when they come in; in particular, it requires you to face the opposition's best spinners more often than not.
So Bairstow's success at No. 4 should not be taken for granted: he made 207 runs at 51.75 with a strike rate of 146.80 there across series in South Africa and India last winter, managing to combine consistency with fast-scoring. His role has been more flexible since, with England occasionally experimenting over their home summer, but he has still shown his ability to take down spin through the middle overs, developed over his career but honed through his experiences in the IPL.
It is Bairstow's ability to take down wristspin that has been particularly crucial. Since the start of the 2019 IPL, only two players have scored faster against wristspin in all T20 cricket, and both of them - Moeen and Nicholas Pooran - have the advantage that right-arm legspinners' stock balls turn into their hitting arc. Bairstow, by contrast, often finds himself hitting against the spin, but his ability to read lengths early means that he can either rock onto the back foot and pull or come forward and time fuller balls into gaps (the vast majority of his runs against wristspin come in front of square on the leg side).
That skill will be vital on Saturday night in Dubai, when England come up against an Australia side that have shown some vulnerabilities in their two opening wins but know that victory will put them on the brink of semi-final qualification. Despite their impressive seam stocks, Australia's key bowler to date has been Adam Zampa, who has taken 4 for 33 across his eight overs; Bairstow's task will be to take him down.
Bairstow's legacy as one of England's greatest white-ball batters is already secure, whatever happens in this tournament: without his hundreds against India and New Zealand, their 2019 World Cup win might not have been possible. But if they are to succeed in their bid to hold both trophies simultaneously, it will surely owe much to Bairstow's versatility, adaptability and skill.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98