Jonny Bairstow has been scoring runs at a gallop for Yorkshire. Meanwhile, the England top order has regularly given Test opponents a three wicket headstart. Bairstow’s call-up for the third Test (along with some shuffling of the order to accommodate him) aims to channel his strong form into a stiffening of the England line-up for the rest of the Ashes series.
Bairstow is also Yorkshire’s first choice wicket-keeper. He joins Jos Buttler in the team. The England keeper has made just 58 runs in four innings so far in the series. Neither player demands inclusion on the basis of keeping ability, and so needs regular runs to justify selection. It might seem that Bairstow’s return puts pressure on Buttler. It could be seen quite differently, though. A trip back to international football in the 1970s and 1980s will be used to illustrate.
Ron Greenwood became the England football manager in 1977. Two competitive matches later and England had failed to qualify for its second consecutive World Cup Finals. In Brooking and Keegan, the manager had two high class players. The team’s other stars were goalkeepers: Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence. Greenwood adopted a policy, from the qualifying campaign for the 1980 European Championships, until the final warm-ups ahead of the 1982 World Cup, of alternating Shilton and Clemence – as well as giving Joe Corrigan an occasional cap. Greenwood’s rationale was to ensure both players maintained international experience, which he could achieve without weakening the team. There was some recent historical justification for this unusual selection policy. At the 1970 World Cup Finals, England’s first choice ‘keeper, Gordon Banks fell ill before the quarter-final with West Germany. His replacement, Peter Bonetti, had just a handful of caps. His inexperience was exposed by the West Germans in their late three goal rally that eliminated England.
The England cricket team, under Peter Moores and now Trevor Bayliss are already coming close to emulating one feature of Greenwood’s approach to player selection as England manager. For a few matches in 1977, Greenwood, seeking a cohesive team, picked six players from the League Champions Liverpool as well as Kevin Keegan, who had recently moved from Liverpool to play in Germany. Six of the England squad that toured West Indies earlier this year were from the county champions, Yorkshire, which is the source of four players in the current Test squad.
But it’s Greenwood’s more idiosyncratic selection policy of alternating keepers that could provide an inspiration for the England cricket team. The aim would not be to have two players with deep international experience capable of keeping wicket for England in the next World Cup. The objective would be to have at least one wicket-keeper, fresh and injury-free for that tournament. Buttler is the first choice keeper for Tests, ODIs and T20s. By the end of the next English season, he could be called on to play 17 Tests, over 20 ODIs, sundry T20 internationals and a World T20 tournament. For one player to fulfil the lynchpin role of wicket-keeper for the entirety of the itinerary, particularly a player whose batting is key to the team in limited overs matches, presents a real risk of burn-out or injury through physical stress.
Having Bairstow in the squad offers the option of resting Buttler, if not from alternate matches, then regularly at the tail-end of series. In limited overs matches, Buttler and Bairstow could swap roles, allowing the Lancashire keeper to play as a specialist batsman. If England can farm the use of these two versatile cricketers their careers could be prolonged and their effectiveness when selected enhanced. Buttler, in these circumstances, if well managed, would not see Bairstow’s elevation to the squad as a threat, but an opportunity to become an even stronger all-round wicket-keeper batsman.
What this scenario does depend upon, of course, is the new man – Bairstow – scoring enough runs, at the right times, to justify his retention. If his old technical flaws return in the face of the Australia attack, the plan should not be implemented. That does not necessarily mean Buttler must tackle England’s demanding fixture list unsupported. There’s another player, already a squad member, capable of dove-tailing with the number one keeper’s need for rest and relief. Sam Billings may turn out to be more than Joe Corrigan was to Shilton and Clemence.