In the current make-believe world of Jonny Bairstow, there are no half measures. What you see is what you get. And what you get can be flat-out surreal. Back-to-back hundreds in less than 100 balls, second-fastest fifty, second-fastest century and the second-fastest 150 for England in Test cricket, 394 runs at a strike rate of 120.12—these are extraordinary numbers that make Bairstow an outlier of the game and, frankly, an antithesis to what England stood for in red-ball cricket even a few months back.
We know extraordinary things tend to happen when Ben Stokes leads England, literally or figuratively. And with new coach Brendon McCullum unabashedly advocating an unadulterated approach that funnels the aggression of white-ball cricket into Test cricket, it was only a matter of time before the limits of the game were challenged. No one, however, encapsulates that transition better than Bairstow in England’s sharp and decisive turnaround from middling achievers to marauding victors.
New Zealand didn’t have any inkling of what was about to hit them when Bairstow took strike at Trent Bridge with England teetering on 56/3 chasing 299. Less than 35 overs later, victory was achieved in the most incendiary fashion, fuelled by “cheese and ham toastie and a cup of coffee” during tea and the tenacity to treat the target as a simple runs-per-over equation. Nothing more, nothing less. “We saw it as a one-day game,” said Bairstow. It was a madcap dash alright, but also broken down into sucker punches. A 13-run over off Matt Henry after tea, hitting Trent Boult for a maximum in the next over, followed by two more sixes again off Henry—Bairstow was dismantling the target with alarming brutality while carving a 179-run stand with Ben Stokes, 102 runs out of which came in the first nine overs after the interval alone.
Next Test at Headingley, Bairstow reaffirmed the significance of simplicity with a 162 that salvaged England’s first innings. See ball-hit ball, leave or defend, how difficult can it really be? It’s a state of mind though, not a programme with a reset button. Which is why Stokes was still possibly in a state of disbelief while recounting this: “I’d never heard a bloke get 130 off 90 (odd) balls the week before and then ask his head coach, ‘how shall I go out and play?’ Baz (McCullum) then said, ‘go and get your Sudoku book and come and sit next to me and shut up’, basically. Whatever you did last week worked, go and do it again.”
Every athlete’s career has been bogged by self-doubt. But if you are Bairstow, still not the first pick as England’s specialist wicketkeeper batter in the ninth year of your career, without a Test hundred after 2018 and repeatedly typecast as a white-ball mercenary, no amount of success can be reassuring at times. Thankfully for England, McCullum arrived in time to shake off that dread before the New Zealand series. That empowered Bairstow to walk up to Stokes and joke: “Fancy doing another Trent Bridge?” when the scoreboard read 21/4 at Headingley. It quickly became 55/6 but with No 8 Jamie Overton keeping company, Bairstow reached his century in just 95 deliveries. Many exceptional batters have scaled back and then attacked. But Bairstow’s genius is in not conceding any sense of lull in his game. He might be beaten but he will hit back.
“Sometimes it’s a simple game that we complicate,” Bairstow had told Sky Sports. “That’s all we’re trying to do: strip that complicated nature of it back, allow people to go out and express themselves in a way that will bring the best out of them as individuals and also as personalities. A lot of people were saying I should not be at the IPL and that I should be playing county cricket. That’s part and parcel of the game. You are playing against the best in the world at the IPL. So being able to have those gears, to be able to go and switch them up, switch them down is important.”
That maneuverability is exactly what Stokes is hoping white-ball cricket enables in Bairstow’s game when he talks about making him feel comfortable as an attacking middle-order batter. Bairstow isn’t the rule but definitely the exception, because very few can execute audacious innings like him. In their new-found Test mould thus, and against a stiffer opposition in India, England would be quietly hoping Bairstow doesn’t stop dreaming, and daring.
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