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White-ball wanderer Jonny Bairstow resets his Test agenda

Drift from Test cricket mirrored England's as a whole, but batter has found his focus again

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Jonny Bairstow greeted his hundred with a release of emotion  •  Gareth Copley/Getty Images

Jonny Bairstow greeted his hundred with a release of emotion  •  Gareth Copley/Getty Images

What might have been, six long years ago, had Jonny Bairstow not taken a long, envious look at England's white-ball reset (as nobody was calling it back in the day), and decided, "you know what, I want a piece of that".
In January 2016, Bairstow made his maiden Test century at Cape Town, riding a wave of emotion in the anniversary week of his father's death to add a remarkable 399-run stand with Ben Stokes on the flattest Newlands deck of the decade. For the rest of that calendar year, he was England's premier Test batter, embracing his wicketkeeping duties like a security blanket as he racked up 1470 runs at 58.80 - a total that no Englishman other than Joe Root could surpass.
But even as he was doing so, the sands were shifting beneath the feet of England's multi-format players. Amid England's run to the World T20 final in 2016, and their World Cup dress rehearsal in the Champions Trophy the following summer, the sense of something special taking shape was unmistakable.
And Bairstow, for most of that initial period, was England's white-ball super-sub, a man kept at arm's length from the first XI, and almost goaded at times by Eoin Morgan to redouble his determination to break into the team - a treat-'em-mean tactic that delivered so many irresistible white-ball displays - including four centuries in six innings in early 2018 - that, come the final approach to the World Cup, he simply could not be kept on the fringes any longer. The trade-off was his place in England's Test plans.
Fast forward to Sydney in January 2022, and Bairstow was back in that same 2016 zone with England's solitary century of an otherwise dismal Ashes tour. It was a campaign for which he hadn't even been selected in the opening two games of the series, but once again, he channelled the spirit of his father to grimace his way through the pain of a broken thumb, and lay down the foundations of England's only non-defeat of the tour.
Now, with that same clench-fisted inevitability, he's made it two centuries in consecutive England matches (three if you include a slightly spurious warm-up in Coolidge) and after years of drift and frustration - including the removal of those beloved gloves, and enough ducks and scapegoatings to set up a petting zoo - it seems he has relocated the defiant mindset that defined his now-distant year of Test mastery.
"I'm very passionate about playing for England and very passionate about playing Test cricket," Bairstow said. "I'm absolutely delighted, it's been a good start to the year and hopefully that continues. Obviously I didn't start in the Ashes but I got my opportunity and looked to take it. It's been a good build-up and to start this way in this series is fantastic."
It wasn't looking quite so fantastic midway through the opening session of the series, however. Arriving as he did to a grim scoreline of 48 for 4, Bairstow's knock could not have come at a more priceless time for an England team in which he is once again being treated as a senior player. In the remaining 8.2 overs to the lunchbreak, he and Ben Stokes eked out nine runs before a calculated raising of the tempo against Jayden Seales and Alzarri Joseph upon the resumption.
"It's something that is part and parcel of the game," Bairstow said. "You know you may come in in some tricky spots and it's about staying out there as long as you can and grinding. That's what we do, we'll come tomorrow and grind again. I've played a fair amount of Test matches now so I'm delighted to start the year this way. Hopefully we can kick on again. Let's have a good year and see where we are at the end of it."
If England's much-vaunted "red-ball reset" is to have any merit beyond being a convenient soundbite to buy the ECB time while it works out exactly what it wants from Test cricket, then a resetting of attitude from the players within the existing set-up is as good a place to start as any.
That's not to say, however, that Bairstow has had an especially bad attitude to Test cricket in recent years. He's simply had a priority - entirely endorsed by the governing body that pays most of his wages - which was to become the best white-ball batter he could possibly turn himself into.
Had Bairstow spent the years from 2017-2021 twiddling his thumbs between Test engagements, then driving with flat feet and losing his poles every other innings through a lack of application, then the censure that has come his way would have been justifiable. But he did not. His technique suffered, in simplistic terms, from his commitment to launching inside-out drives in the Powerplay to become, arguably, England's most important ODI batter of all time.
For Jos Buttler is routinely spoken of as England's white-ball GOAT - and Buttler has also been given far more leeway in Test cricket, when his attempts to bridge these increasingly polarised formats have fallen on hard times. But when England's World Cup challenge was in danger of flatlining in the group stages, it was Bairstow's last bout of back-to-back England hundreds, against India and New Zealand in two de facto knock-outs, that turbo-charged a campaign that simply would not have been won without him.
Gratitude might have been a more fitting response to his efforts - or a degree of understanding at the very least. But that's not quite how his career has panned out to date. Partly this comes down to his occasionally spiky demeanour. He memorably got himself into his World Cup zone by complaining that the media all wanted England to fail, and seeing as he's seemingly never better than when he's fighting to prove a point, perhaps there's merit in lobbing endless brickbats in his direction.
But Bairstow's struggles to be all things to all formats does reveal how futile this alleged reset will be unless there is a commitment from above to reframe the way that England's teams are selected, coached, managed, and flung from format to format without a pause for realignment. His return to the Test team in the summer of 2021 epitomised the chaos - a late-night drive to Loughborough after a Hundred match for Welsh Fire, then - one Covid test later - his first red-ball net for months, two days out from the Trent Bridge Test. He made 29 and 30 on that occasion - performing precisely as well as anyone could realistically have expected, no more and no less.
Much has been made of the eviction of James Anderson and Stuart Broad for this series, with most of the focus falling on the bowlers who will now lead the line, most notably Chris Woakes, whose new-ball spell on Wednesday will be one of the most scrutinised of his World Cup-winning career.
But Bairstow is another whose seniority is no longer hiding in plain sight. Eighty Test caps in ten years - albeit 49 of them as a wicketkeeper, seven as a specialist No. 3, and the rest as something neither quite here nor there - no longer looks quite such small beer when the bloke with 169 caps in 19 is removed from the equation.
"I've batted everywhere, haven't I?" Bairstow added. "Hopefully it's a case of getting a run of games in one position. I think there was a period of batting 14 or 15 different positions in 18 or 20 knocks at one stage. It's nice to establish yourself in one role."
The chance to do just that is precisely what Bairstow has been denied for the prime years of his career. You sense that the tenacious part of him would not have it any other way. For at the age of 32, there's another gauntlet laid in front of him. For him, as for England, this might be his cue to resume the standards that he mislaid in the course of that wild white-ball ride.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket