Quick single: avoiding prodigious turn
Earlier in the summer, watching the 1st Test between West Indies and Australia, I was excited to see Devendra Bishoo tease the Australian middle-order. I wrote about how he turned the ball sharply to get Steven Smith stumped and to bowl Brad Haddin. At first, I typed the words ‘prodigious turn’ to describe the delivery that had defeated Haddin. The phrase emerged easily onto the screen, but snagged my eye as I re-read the finished sentence. With a little thought, a bit more effort, I altered the description to something that didn’t cause discomfort when re-reading it.
I had avoided ‘prodigious turn’ and had identified a foe, a representative of a class of expression that I wanted to sidestep. With the ‘quick singles and short pitches’ initiative, I committed to writing more regularly. The faster pace of composition would mean less opportunity to reflect on my writing and the greater temptation to lean on familiar formulations in the rush to press the ‘publish’ button.
The particular class of expression I have wanted to evade is not the sport’s slang (e.g. ‘good areas’), nor is it cliche (e.g. ‘catches win matches’) because I would expect to steer clear of both. It’s a budding cliche; something that when it was first coined was probably fresh and distinctive. It involves the use of adjectives or verbs that are unusual and might give the writer a sense of erudition. But the sense is false, because the words are a formula.
I can think of two situations in which these expressions are used. The first is when a cricketer is spending her first days in the commentary box and there isn’t time to measure every word. The familiar but more sophisticated sounding formulations give more weight to utterances, so it seems. The second situation is in recreational cricket where the terms are used archly as players act out a pretence of playing the same game, requiring the same level of description, as their international heroes.
You may have started to identify phrases that fit these criteria. I think of the following as being on a par with ‘prodigious turn’:
‘inserting the opposition’ and its synonym, ‘electing to field’
‘extracting movement from the pitch’
‘bisecting the field’
None of these is poor English. Originality cannot and probably should not always be sought by those writing about the game. These expressions, though, have become familiar and in their regular usage, some of their meaning is being lost. Language, of course, is not stable and I am also very aware that there is also personal taste at work. At the moment, I am reading a collection of John Arlott’s articles on cricket. In a piece written in 1983 about Derek Randall, he wrote this:
One would have expected one of his bubbling enthusiasm to bowl furiously fast; or very slow with prodigious spin.
Quick single: He came like a king
Hammond’s walk was the most handsome in all cricket, smooth in the evenness of stride, precise in balance. It was a flow of movement linking stillness to stillness. It was, as much as any feature of athletics, the poetry of motion.
JM Kilburn’s effusive description of Wally Hammond, walking to the crease at Lord’s in 1938, continued: “He came like a king and he looked like a king in his coming.” Kilburn acknowledges that Hammond essentially did not look any different that day than he normally did walking to the crease, although there was “an added quality”. It’s not that real or imagined otherness of the day Hammond went on to score 240 that interests me, but that he could be recognised by his walk.
The cricketers, if in silhouette and without context of match or location, that could be identified from their walk to the crease, is not, I think, great in number. Two immediately come to my mind. There’s Viv Richards, hips swaying, shoulders rolling. And I think I could pick out Alan Border: short steps and head tilted upwards to the sky and turning, like a meerkat looking out for airborne predators.
I am sure that if you watched a team all summer, you could come to recognise each player from his or her non-batting or bowling movements. For those of us following the game at a distance, or seeing a little of a lot of cricketers, there needs to be something very distinctive for the silhouette test to work.
With Jonny Bairstow’s recall to the England Test team, we have two players to view in the Ashes contest with very individual ways of running. Bairstow, in the field, works his limbs like someone unfamiliar with cross-country skis, trying to escape a polar bear over snow. Steve Smith, running between the wickets is a flurry of arms, legs and bat.
In the six months that I have had the picture at the head of this piece on my wall, I have come to enjoy it for an associated reason. In this case, though, it’s not movement that identifies the player, but fixed posture. Each of England’s three slip fielders (and to a lesser extent, the gulley) has a characteristic stance: feet position, bracing of the knees, prominence of backside, tension in the arms and shoulders. I am convinced I could recognise them separately from the context of the opening delivery of the 2005 Ashes. Are there other slip-fielders you find similarly recognisable?
Quick single: Alternating keepers
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.
Quick single: Dr Seamus Hogan
Yesterday, I had intended to write up a piece about Steve Smith, Derek Randall and John Arlott. I was going to point out the similarities of Smith and Randall: fidgeting, stepping across the crease, playing shots without establishing the orthodox ‘solid base’; I would revisit Arlott’s famous article about the Nottinghamshire batsman and why his often replayed summation was unfortunate hyperbole. I was going to conclude that Smith didn’t remind me of my inevitable demise.
But yesterday morning I read the sad news of Seamus Hogan’s death. I knew Hogan in a very modern way: twitter exchanges, emails and comments on each others’ blog posts. Different hemispheres, shared interests, instant, brief communication.
Despite the limitations of that sort of acquaintance, he came across as very likeable, generous and clever. In fact, Hogan was a leading economist and academic in New Zealand. From time to time, he applied his academic rigour to cricket questions, generating counter-intuitive, but statistically solid insights.
Across the cricket world, he is probably best known for his work behind WASP, the result and score predictor used by, amongst other outlets, SkySports. Like any forecasting system, WASP was only really interesting for most viewers when it was wrong. On a couple of occasions, I followed Hogan as he patiently and politely responded to gloating and ill-informed criticism on twitter of the system he co-founded. Too patient and too polite, I thought. Those who really knew him may know if that was his general disposition – I suspect it was.
Hogan’s blogs – about cricket and other matters – can be found on the Offsetting Behaviour website, which he shared with a colleague, Peter Frampton, who wrote this touching, dignified notification of his death.
For all John Arlott’s erudition and eloquence, he was dreadfully wrong about Derek Randall and, indeed, any other batsman “who overplays his hand and falls into disaster”. That’s not what reminds you of your own mortality.
My thoughts are with Seamus Hogan’s colleagues, his students, his friends and, above all, his family.
Quick single: taking first strike
The first ball of a Test innings is long anticipated, quickly marked in the book and becomes a gradually reducing data point in the pattern of the innings. Ball two is less special and declines in significance at the same rate. Balls three, four, five and six are each still of note. Soon, though, the individual delivery is part of the greater ebb and flow without a given identity.
The batsman who chooses, or is assigned, to take first ball is the most exposed on the team.
Chris Rogers took strike on Thursday at Lord’s and was straight into action, defending Anderson’s first ball from the crease. The second, leaning forward, he steered to point.
Shortly after tea on Friday, with 10 hours in the field in his legs, Adam Lyth took strike. He also felt bat on ball immediately, dead-batting a short delivery from Starc behind square on the off-side. Lyth lined up the second on off-stump and offered another dead bat at it. But it curved away a little and lifted, drawing the opener’s bat, flicked the outside edge and through to the keeper.
Rogers’ read his third ball as full, stepped forward and drove. The ball swung, intercepting the edge of Rogers’ bat and lifted over the England slips, arms extending, hands grasping, and away for four.
Lyth looked down, recognised the option of staying didn’t exist and slowly moved back along the pitch. Past the umpire and Cook, he slowed again. A review had been called to check for a front-foot no-ball. But that provided no second chance and Lyth, head still down, had the pavilion ahead and a mobile cameraman pointing his device at the batsman’s face, retreating in step with the player, just out of reach should the subject want to take a swipe at the technology with his bat.
After a safe leave, Rogers sees the fifth ball pitched up again outside off-stump. His instinct is better this time and drives the swinging half-volley cleanly through the covers for four.
It took England 295 more balls, conceding another 26 boundaries, to dislodge Rogers. A single ball is all that might have separated opening over Lord’s ducks for Rogers and Lyth. Lyth will bat again in this match, with the chance to close the gap with his opposite number. He will face the first ball of an innings, the most exposed batsman.
Quick single: An Australian Partnership – Fidget and Meringue Man
I can well imagine going on holiday with Steven Smith.
Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency.. Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency.. Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency..
Smith pats his trouser pocket, breast pocket, back-pack and bumbag, compulsively and repeatedly. Just checking. Just checking again. Checking again. Again.
Batting, between deliveries, Smith checks: helmet grill, right pad, left pad, box, helmet crown, bat twirl. Twice over. He’s a blur of manual reassurance. Fidget.
Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency..
Taking strike, the bowler about to begin his run up, the batsman settles, steady and still, eyes level, energy conserved, ready to pounce. Not Fidget. He stands at the wicket. His bat wags towards gulley like the tail of a well-behaved dog, hearing his master return home at the end of the day. A dip at the knees, then another. A shuffle to the right, another dip.
Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency..
Non-striker, Fidget rehearses front foot shots. Left foot forward, bat sweeps and his back foot drags, drifts or rotates. Without the ball, he practises his idiosyncratic technique, where most players emulate the text book. A solid base, the coach insists; au point, this twitchy ballerina practices.
Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency..
Running. A forward defensive and Fidget is five yards down the track before bouncing back into his ground. When the ball is directed into open space, Fidget is away, looking for two, three, an all-run four at the very least. His body moves forward, at pace, his limbs scatter. He’s like a junior playing his first game in unfamiliar pads. The bat’s not tucked economically under his arm, but an extra limb, an unneeded crutch, as much in the way as helping him towards the other crease.
Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency..
All this energy and motion, critical to a one-day run-chase, to setting and maintaining a momentum. But this is day one of a Test match. He bats from mid-morning to lunch. Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency.. All afternoon. Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency.. And through to the close of play. Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency..
Fidget’s at work, on tour. Batting hard on a pitch he might not take home, but would enjoy on holiday. Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency..
The ingredients of a meringue start loose and liquid.
Rogers is off the mark quickly. A waft over the slips, then smooth punches through the off-side, easy tucks off his pads. Comfortably out-scoring his more heralded opening partner.
As energy and activity are applied to the meringue mixture, it stiffens.
His fifty up and into the afternoon session, the sun is out and Rogers is trying to accelerate. Driving, the bat turns in his grip and the ball finds his instep, not the boundary. Cuts clatter into the ground beside him, not the sponsor’s boundary advertising. Meringue Man’s batting is becoming viscous. It’s sticky, slow work through the 60s and 70s, relying on the toe end and outside edge of his bat.
The meringue has a hard, if fragile, surface.
It is the delicate cuts from the slow bowlers that keep Meringue Man’s score accumulating. Just brushing the face of his bat and skittering away to the third man boundary. Fine deflections, not full-on impact, move him into the 90s.
Finally, a full connection with a straight drive takes Meringue Man to his 100. And now he’s transformed, shattering his crusty shell, middling the ball and speeding to 150.
A meringue crumbled and made fruity. An Australian Eton Mess?
Quick single: Harmison draws Ponting’s blood
The opening session of the opening day of the 2005 Ashes. Steve Harmison, bowling from the Pavilion End at Lord’s, hit Justin Langer on the elbow with the second ball of the day. A few overs later, Matthew Hayden tried to pull Harmison, missed the ball which continued its upward course to strike him on the helmet. Hayden fell shortly afterwards to Hoggard, bringing Ricky Ponting to the middle.
Harmison was bowling rapidly and with good rhythm. Into his sixth over, another pull shot attempted and missed. Ponting took a blow on the grill. For the second time that morning, the Australian physio was out in the middle, this time to staunch blood and patch-up the skipper’s face. Ponting batted on and in Harmison’s next over, drove at a ball outside off-stump and edged to be caught in the slips.
At the fall of each wicket that morning, and three more came before lunch, the crowd roared, rose to feet, arms up or fists pumped. The crowd’s response to each of the blows sustained by the Australian top three was just as unrestrained. Often, there’s a sense on the first morning of a Test, that the crowd needs to settle in, adjust to the pulse of a match due to last five days. That morning, though, there was a stronger alertness and anticipation. It was going to be a contest, closely fought, for the first time in years.
By batting first, Australia enabled England to lead off with their strong suit: four fast bowlers, varied in style and method. There was an anxiety, a yearning that England would, figuratively, draw first blood. The Lord’s crowd had sat and admired Australian batsmanship and rued hapless England bowling for years. This crowd on this morning wanted something different.
Alongside the anticipation for the game, there was a tension peculiar to this match. Cricket followers in England are cossetted, compared to their peers in some other countries, from the threat and experience of violence. Two weeks earlier, though, London had been struck by four suicide bombers. The city was on high alert and rumours rumbled like thunder. Bag and body searches were, if not introduced that year at Lord’s’ gates, stiffened. Sitting at Lord’s, watching Test cricket might feel defiant, or indulgent, but it also felt like being a juicy target for a terrorist intent on striking at western decadence.
Failed bomb attacks occurred that day in West London. On the second day of the Test, as Australia built a health second innings lead, police shot dead a mis-identified suspect in South London. This unsettling news swirled around the Lord’s crowd.
The hunger for England to finally knock over these Australians was the principal cause of the roars that greeted the blows to Langer, Hayden and, in particular, Ponting, that morning. The pent-up excitement at seeing England dictate terms, bursting out into shouts and displays of approval of violence. There was also a tension in the air, a mistrust and discomfort that may have infected the crowd’s response.
Ten years and almost twenty days of attending international cricket later, the first day of the 2005 Ashes series has imprinted the strongest impressions on my memory. The chain of incident of Ponting being struck, the crowd’s (and my) reaction, his removal of his helmet to find a trickle of blood, connects me closer to that intense morning than anything else.
Quick single: Early lead
There’s much to be commended in going out and celebrating your team’s victory. Soak up the success; prolong the elevated mood by reconstructing the achievement, bouncing favourite moments off fellow fans.
At home, not quite alone, I am looking forward, as much as backwards. Like the anxious, partisan football fan, who sees his side take an early lead, I think, “No. Too soon. So much time for that other team to mount a come back.” There’s basic psychology at work: a lead means there is something to be lost. Being defeated, without ever being ahead, doesn’t have the discomfort of dashed hopes, the humiliation of squandering an advantage – particularly when, before the contest began, as is the case with England in this Ashes series, I held very slender hopes.
I wanted England to compete, to push the Australians. I hoped this summer that a new bowler of international class would emerge, and two of England’s fresh batsmen would solidify their places. I wanted Cook’s captaincy to be resolved (by which I mean, ended).
Now, though, a vista of opportunity has opened up. But the broader the vista, the deeper the holes into which we can fall. All because of this early lead.
What really complicates things for me is England’s new positive approach to, in particular, batting. Clinging to a one-nil lead throughout a five Test series is not feasible. It used to be. India achieved it in 1982/83 over a six match series: wrangling a first Test victory on a poor pitch and holding out for draws for the rest of the series on pitches where “conditions were so heavily weighted in favour of the bat” (Wisden, 1983). This series will have at least two more results.
I would like England to bat conscious of their lead. I want to see consolidation and conservation applied to their innings. I want context to be recognised and respected.
At the moment, the England middle-order (and one of the openers) seems to believe that attack is the answer to each and every challenge. It worked at Lord’s against New Zealand, and again in both innings at Cardiff.
And it did a thrilling job in the ODI series with New Zealand. But playing without fear isn’t a tactical choice, but a necessity, when it becomes obvious that scoring at seven runs per over is what’s needed to win the game. That’s not the case in Test cricket. While England have found success from playing audaciously on a few occasions, on others they will not.
So far, they have benefited from surprise. If it becomes the default response to the loss of a few early wickets, the Australians will be ready for it and England will show all the calculation of the gambler who doubles his stakes after every loss. England have also been lucky, notably at Cardiff. Root played and missed, edged and squirted the ball past the close catchers. Bell, excluded from the ODI jamboree, appeared determined to show he belonged. His innings featured his classy off-drives – none of which we would have appreciated had any one of his early shots that looped past fielders fallen to hand.
To win a five Test series, a team needs to master a variety of tempos. As a batting line-up, England seem enthralled by a pacey approach, that will soon speed them to defeat, if not used selectively. That’s what I believe – just as I believed in 2005 that Vaughan was reckless and should consolidate gains in that famous Ashes series. My approach to Test cricket was stuck in the past then and maybe similarly out of date now. There’s only one thing for it: can someone take me out to celebrate?
Quick single: whose day?
343-7 (88 overs)
Australia’s day: the pitch is benign and conducive to heavy run scoring; seven wickets taken on a day when the bowlers lacked focus and looked only intermittently threatening.
England’s day: took the attack to Australia’s bowlers, scoring at nearly four runs per over across the whole day; Root reinforced his status as the key batsman and Ballance demonstrated he can battle to make runs.
Add to the mix the selective punctuation points of 43-3 and 280-4 and more arguments can be made in favour of one team or the other.
Our keenness to call the first day of the Ashes series suggests it has meaning: setting the tone for cricket to be played across England and Wales over the next seven weeks; establishing advantages and inflicting inferiorities that will recur in the twenty-odd days to come.
Is that the role of the first day of an Ashes series – to create patterns of play and relative position that predict its outcome? I have looked at day 1 of the last ten Ashes series.
2013/14 Brisbane: Australia 273/8 (Warner 49, Haddin 78*, Johnson 64, Broad 5-65)
Day 1 did not foreshadow Australia’s dominance or England’s horrors. In retrospect, it seems a day belonging to the preceding series, rather than the one it started. Haddin’s salvage job on the Australia innings from 100-5 was to become a feature of the series. Johnson, it is often said, bowls better when he has scored runs and that association proved, in this case, true.
2013 Trent Bridge: England 213 (Trott 48, Siddle 5-50), Australia 75-4 (Smith 38*)
It could be argued that day 1 at Nottingham fairly summarised a series where England’s worst could be outdone by Australia’s; or more generously, Australia would be unrewarded for periods of fine cricket (in this case Siddle’s bowling). The only major player on that first day to go on to have distinguished series was Anderson, who took two of the wickets to fall, including Clarke bowled with a gem.
2010/11 Brisbane: England 276 (Bell 76, Cook 67, Pietersen 43, Siddle 6-54), Australia 25-0
England’s disappointing first day of the series (second and third days, as well) were poor indicators of this contest’s ultimate direction. Some of England’s batsmen showed form that was to develop into great richness. Siddle took almost half of his wickets in the series on that first day.
2009 Cardiff: England 336-7 (Pieterson 69, Collingwood 64, Prior 56)
A closely contested day’s play, with the initiative swinging between the sides and no dominant individual performance was a fair microcosm of the 4 and 4/5 Tests that followed.
2006/07 Brisbane: Australia 343/3 (Ponting 137*, Langer 82, Hussey 63*)
It wasn’t the first day that summed up this series, but the very first ball: Harmison’s wide delivered straight to his captain at first slip. Australia cruised to a big total on the first stretch of their cruise to a 5-0 whitewash of England.
2005 Lord’s: Australia 190 (Langer 40, Harmison 5-40), England 92-7 (McGrath 5-21)
This thrilling day was a fitting overture for ‘the greatest series’. It suggested however that England’s best would not be quite enough to topple Australia. The day also impressed on all the importance of McGrath, though noone was thinking about the impact his absence would later have.
2002/03 Brisbane: Australia 364/2 (Hayden 186*, Ponting 123)
Day 1 was one of many in the series that Australia won by a distance. Hayden and Ponting scored heavily while England toiled. Simon Jones’s injury, sliding in the field, was the most serious of a number than hampered England in the matches that followed.
2001 Edgbaston: England 294 (Stewart 65, Atherton 57, Caddick 49*, Warne 5-71, McGrath 3-67), Australia 133/2 (Slater 76*)
A rambunctious first day saw runs scored at almost five per over. The hints on this day of close competition were misleading as England failed to reach 250 in another innings until the fourth Test when the series had already been lost. Warne and McGrath – 8 wickets on the day – kept up their early momentum, sharing 63 wickets in the five Tests.
1998/99 Brisbane: Australia 246/5 (S Waugh 69*, Healy 46*, Taylor 46)
Australia emerged on top after a tightly fought opening day. England could only attain that level of competitiveness sporadically across the series that followed.
1997 Edgbaston: Australia 118 (Warne 47, Gough 3-43, Caddick 5-50), England 200-3 (Hussain 83*, Thorpe 80*)
England had a first innings lead before the end of the first day. It was an aberration, although not one Australia could correct until the second Test (England bowled out for 77). By the fifth of the six Test series, Australia had a 3-1 lead.
Five of these first days proved to be fair indicators of the direction the series would ultimately take. There were too many false clues laid, however, for any reliance to be placed on the first day as a predictor of the cricket that follows.
Quick single: Jonny Bairstow form and flaws
Picking players in form is one of the national selectors’ least important duties. Far more significant to identify the player with the talent and technique to thrive at international level, than to pluck the name from the top of the county (state, province, etc) averages.
Sometimes, though, with a cricketer who might, just might, have the right stuff for the international game, the timing of their selection can have a long-lasting impact. Jonny Bairstow, in mid-summer 2015, is in the form of his life. He has a three-figure average in the County Championship with hundreds scored in three of his last fiur innings. In the last but one match, he was joined in the middle by Tim Bresnan, with the score 191-6. The pair added 366 together (the third highest partnership for the seventh wicket in first class history), with Bairstow 219* at the declaration. The week before, replacing Jos Butler in the England limited overs squad, his innings of 83* won the deciding match in the series against New Zealand.
Bairstow isn’t in the England squad for the first Ashes Test and is playing again for Yorkshire this week at Edgbaston.
The highlight of his 14 Test matches came at Lord’s in 2012 with two belligerent and brave innings against South Africa, which took England close to a victory against the team that replaced them as the number 1 ranked Test team. The stronger impression created by Bairstow’s Test batting career to date is of a player hampered by technical flaws. Initially, during his debut series against the West Indies, it was his ability to play the short-ball that concerned. Dismissals (bowled, lbw and caught off a leading edge) playing across the line of full, straight deliveries became the focus of doubts about Bairstow’s suitability for Test cricket. 28 was Bairstow’s highest score in his last 8 Test innings (preceded by 64), the most recent of which was in the final Test of the 2013/14 Ashes whitewash.
How should the England selectors weigh up Jonny Bairstow’s current run of good form with the evidence of his early experiences of Test cricket? In one sense, the existence of clear flaws in his batting in 2012-14 clarifies the matter as the selectors should be looking for assurance that those issues have been resolved. That, however, assumes that problems exposed at Test level would be apparent in the county game, where the bowling subjects techniques to less strict examination.
That Bairstow favoured the legside was well known when he made his England debut and is far from a unique preference – witness Cook, Trott, etc. But was he falling to straight deliveries in Test cricket because, starved of balls directed at his pads, Bairstow was forced to find runs somewhere? Playing for Yorkshire, Bairstow may have defended those balls safely, knowing that juicier morsels would arrive soon.
It seems probable that, facing Australia’s strong and deep pace bowling attack, England’s middle order will need reinforcement with new players, by the second half of the Ashes series. If Jonny Bairstow remains in the form he has shown for the past six weeks, his case will be persuasive. It will come though with some unease about frailties that division one county championship attacks lack the expertise to probe. The selectors will, I believe, have to accept that we won’t know if Bairstow is ready for the rigours of Test cricket, without trying him out there again. Weighing on their minds may be a similar calculation, albeit featuring different variables, that was made when Jonathan Trott was reintroduced to Test cricket in April.