Jonny Bairstow’s role in the middle order is key to England’s future | Barney Ronay
In the end a losing draw felt about right. England and Australia have finally left the building. Although at times during this fifth Test Australia seemed to have checked out some time early last week.
England win fifth Test to draw Ashes series but Australia keep urn
There has never been a day of Ashes cricket so late in the year. It showed at times around a sozzled Oval crowd, baked and frazzled at the end of their own endless cricketing summer – although less so in the sprightly efforts of England’s bowlers, or indeed in Matthew Wade who capped Australia’s series with a brilliant hundred.
As the shadows crept across the pitch Wade and Jofra Archer tended to some unfinished business in that final session. Archer bowled eight overs off the reel, fizzing the ball past the nose of his on-field bromance and cranking the speed gun up to 95.6mph, as both men gave this series the valedictory send‑off it deserved.
Around the Oval concourses the scene was more louche. There was even a sighting of Trevor Bayliss outside the Veuve Clicquot grog‑van behind the pavilion, England’s head coach meeting a brief social call while the bowlers wrestled with Australia’s late-middle order. He has, in fairness, probably earned a drink.
In keeping with that sense of farewells and end times, it must be said Australia approached this match like a hungover house-guest with a train to catch. Bowling first, leaving out two members of their decisive pace quartet, reviewing poorly (they would have come to the Oval 3-0 up but for poor use of the DRS): the urn-holders looked like a team only half in this game.
No doubt this will be factored in when the final divvying up is made on a drawn series. England are now post-Bayliss, two months from the next Test series and at the start of a new cycle.
It feels like a timely cut-off. This England team is a puzzle, packed with talent but muddled by jangling parts and ill-fitting joins. The job of the new coach-captain axis will be to rejig as much as replace and rip out. Above all, there is a need to shift something heavy at the heart of this team, the clog that has mangled the late middle-order, the sense of some well-established, even rather sharp‑elbowed parts that refuse to find their own perfect fit.
With this in mind it seemed fitting that Jonny Bairstow was so prominent on this final day. Bairstow kept very well here, leaping about with élan as the quicks pounded in, producing one lightning stumping in the morning and another in late afternoon off Joe Root to get rid of Wade.
Stare at the parts long enough and Bairstow is probably the key to balancing this team; albeit not in the way he might hope. It was poignant also that the day should be played out under the eyes of Alec Stewart’s Oval office. Bairstow is a brilliant cricketer, and arguably England’s best ever one-day international batsman (look at the numbers; and look where his hundreds took England this summer).
But he has also become a conundrum in this team, and in his own way a modern-day anti-Gaffer. Stewart’s own career as a Test match wicketkeeper-batsman was marked by selflessness. He wanted to open. England needed him to keep. A great Test top order career (Stewart averaged 46 there) was sacrificed for the collective. By contrast Bairstow has to a degree dictated his own terms. He wants to bat at seven, keep the gloves and retain the comfort of a dual-role place in the team, leaving others to struggle with the more stark challenges of the middle order.
Meanwhile, Jos Buttler has yo-yoed up and down the late middle order. A traditional route into the team for younger players at No 6 has been blocked by the knock-on effects. Against this, Bairstow’s returns with the bat have tailed off as a keeper. He averages 28 in the past two years. A grand talent is being allowed to bring its B-game to the party.
It is perhaps another echo of the emphasis on white-ball cricket that what Bairstow wants to do should be a factor in how the England Test team is configured. But the batting lineup will need to lose some of those corners before the winter tours.
The most obvious move would be to shift Bairstow up to No 5 and tell him to become the problem‑solving middle-order gun he could have been all along, with Root at three, Ben Stokes at four, Ollie Pope at six and Buttler keeping wicket at No 7. Buttler has not yet looked like a complete top-six batsman. But he could be a world class No 7. There is another problem here, too. Despite his fine first-class record, Bairstow averages 30 in Tests as a middle-order player without the gloves, a number that drops to 28 since his return to the team in 2015. Perhaps it really would be more radical to simply let this go.
Other parts of the team are coming together. Archer is a sublime talent. Stuart Broad, who really can’t go on for ever, continues to give the impression he might. There is the armature of a fine, eager next-generation Test team here. England have a chief selector with a ruthless eye and a new head coach in the offing. But new beginnings are often a little painful too. That middle order clog, the jostle for position that has unbalanced this team for too long, might just be an excellent place to start.