Challenge clear for Jonny Bairstow as axing marks start of England's new Test focus
Ed Smith is a man who chooses his words wisely, but on this occasion, the message from England's chief selector could not have been clearer. Jonny Bairstow has been dropped from England's Test team, and if he wants his place back, he needs to take a long, hard look at his own priorities, and the needs of the team that will take on New Zealand next month without him.
Selection announcements tend to be a euphemist's paradise. Players in this day and age tend to be "rested" rather than chopped from the reckoning entirely - even Jason Roy was offered a verbal lifeboat by Smith despite an Ashes debut to forget - and it would have been entirely understandable had England taken a similar approach with the Bairstow announcement.
This is, after all, a player whose twin World Cup hundreds were such an important part of the team's fightback from the brink in the group stages of their most important campaign of the decade, and whose subsequently poor run of form in the Ashes could have been mitigated by any number of factors - burn-out, positional uncertainty and ODI-focussed technical tinkering among them.
After all, his failings this summer in Test cricket have been, on the face of it, little worse than those of the men around him in England's middle order. He averaged 23.77 in the Ashes, with a solitary half-century in ten innings, which is only fractionally less impressive than the 24.70 of Jos Buttler, the man who will be wearing the keeper's gloves in his absence this winter.
The difference, however, is of potential on the one hand, and perception on the other. Buttler's freakish methods lend themselves to a certain type of Test innings - generally counterattacking in the time-honoured image of Adam Gilchrist, and ideally from no higher than No.7 in the batting order, at which point the tone of the innings (for better or worse) will have been set, and the licence to have a go will have been established.
Bairstow, however, is an entirely different beast - and the challenge that Smith has laid down to him would appear to be rooted in two important considerations.
Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, Bairstow is a man who finds his motivation from rather different sources to his peers. His career has been fuelled by a curious rage against his doubters - most notably after his comeback century in Sri Lanka last year when he claimed to have been "castigated" for picking up an ankle injury while playing football, but again before England's World Cup revival in late-June, when he declared that England's media had been waiting for the team to "fail".
Therefore, in explicitly using the word "dropped" in announcing his omission from the Test leg of the New Zealand tour, Smith has sought to fuel that anger like a S(m)ith Lord, encouraging him to shove the indignity straight back whence it came, and make England all the more powerful as a by-product.
It also implies a removal of the kid-gloves now that England's summer-to-end-all-summers has finally ended. For the perception abounds that Bairstow has been indulged by the selectors in recent months, that his tendency to rock the boat with those off-message rages was a price worth paying given the pre-eminence of his form in the only format that really mattered at the time. And if that manifested itself in Jonny growling like a mongrel if anyone dared approach his wicketkeepers' gauntlets in Test cricket, then, well, a blind eye was probably the easiest option.
That now looks set to change, not least because of the other key aspect to the axing - the height of Bairstow's ceiling as a pure Test batsman. Smith was unequivocal on this point, and with good reason, given that it is not so long ago - three summers, in fact - since Bairstow's Test form was unquenchable. In the calendar year of 2016, he scored 1470 runs at 58.80 in 17 Tests and looked as likely as any man on the circuit to break into the game's upper echelons.
But ever since that season Bairstow's returns have been unworthy - three centuries in 76 subsequent innings. And, at a time when England are crying out for genuine Test batsmen, both to ease the pressure on the captain Root, and to prevent any more white-ball pegs being hammered in red-ball roles, one of the most obvious answers to their problems finds himself lurking at the wrong end of the middle order, and seemingly unwilling to front up for the greater good.I'm using my words carefully, He hasn't been 'rested', because to me, that would feel like a cop-out
Ed Smith on Bairstow's non-selection
"Jonny is a very talented cricketer," Smith said. "I'm using my words carefully. He hasn't been 'rested', because to me, that would feel like a cop-out. However, I do believe he has the potential to be a top, top player in Test cricket for England. This is an opportunity for him to reset and to work on one or two things, and then come back."
Bairstow's statistics back up this assertion about his potential, as Smith himself was at pains to point out. When first picked (as a batsman only), against South Africa in 2012, "Jonny was the outstanding young batsman in England," he said.
Furthermore, Smith pointed out his first-class average excluding Test matches is 50.31, which places him alongside Joe Root among his contemporaries and second only to Ollie Pope among England-qualified batsman - although Pope's sample size of 28 matches is too small to compare, even if he is rightly one of the chosen men for the New Zealand tour.
Furthermore, in the period of time that Bairstow has been an England player, his non Test-match first-class average soars to 57. "That clearly shows his potential as a as a red-ball cricketer," Smith concluded, although it also speaks volumes for Bairstow's reaction on the last occasion that England jettisoned him, at the end of the calamitous 2013-14 Ashes.
He returned to Yorkshire to blitz his county to back-to-back Championship titles, racking up 1226 at 76.62 in the 2015 season alone, before cementing his England recall on that winter's tour of South Africa.
To point the finger at Bairstow alone, and blame him for all the ills that have recently befallen England's Test team would be disingenuous, not to mention grossly unfair. The priority of the past four years has been England's one-day side, and Bairstow's perseverance in, first, forcing himself in between Jason Roy and Alex Hales to become a ODI must-pick, and then, latterly, becoming the most reliable half of the most statistically outstanding ODI batting partnership of all time is a staggering achievement.
However, the trade-off for that dedication to white-ball walloping has been as clear as the daylight between his bat and front pad in red-ball cricket. By exposing his stumps to open up his cover-drive in ODIs, Bairstow has exacerbated a propensity to be bowled in Test cricket - 32 times in 69 Tests, a higher percentage any other batsman this century.
But it might also be a metaphor for the entire England set-up, as they embark on a new four-year cycle in which their Test fortunes will be far more rigorously judged than under the Trevor Bayliss regime.
"This is a real opportunity now to reset and focus on how he can go about being that becoming that really Top Test-match player," Smith said. "I would say he needs an opportunity to reset, in his own mind, how he can best contribute to Test cricket.
"If I was asked to give a prediction, my prediction is he comes back stronger and has a very good England career in Test cricket in the future."
Smith might also have added, go and lay a hefty bet on Bairstow being England's top-scorer in the five T20Is in New Zealand that precede the Test campaign. For the fury that this decision may unleash is precisely the sort of cheek-reddening rage that has propelled Bairstow to his most spectacular acts in an England shirt.
And, as a man who turns 30 next week, there's still ample time for more I-told-you-so moments in the near future. Assuming he takes this sacking in the spirit it was intended. And gets bloody livid before he gets even.