Jonny Bairstow the latest casualty as England cricket’s churn continues unabated
It was England’s outgoing coach Trevor Bayliss who once said there was “nothing like a good dropping” to help a player get back his focus. The hope is that in finally running out of patience with Jonny Bairstow, England cricket will in time rediscover the player who all too briefly threatened to become one of the best batsmen in world cricket.
Bairstow’s omission is the headline news from England’s 15-man squad for the forthcoming tour of New Zealand, but in a way his exclusion is emblematic of a wider clearing of the decks, as national selector Ed Smith tries to turn around an ailing Test team with the selection of four uncapped players and a recall for Surrey’s prolific young batsman Ollie Pope. The underlying message is clear: with a new cycle underway, no longer can international caps be earned on reputation alone.
For Bairstow, who averages just 24 in Test cricket since the start of last summer, the end has been some time coming. A return of just three centuries in 76 innings is clearly also insufficient for a player who England have always seen as a front-line batsman who keeps wicket, rather than the other way around. A predilection for missing straight balls - he has been bowled more often than any other Test batsman this decade - hints at a technique adulterated by one-day cricket, where he remains a key player.
The last time Bairstow was dropped from the Test side, at the start of 2014, he responded with his best ever season for Yorkshire and was back in the England fold within 18 months. But things are different now: Bairstow has IPL commitments that will occupy him for the start of the 2020 county season, and with a likely starring role for the Northern Superchargers in The Hundred, chances to prove himself in red-ball cricket could be few and far between. All of which makes last week’s decision to hand him a red-ball contract for the next 12 months all the more bizarre.
And in many ways, Bairstow’s underperformances is merely the symptom of the wider malaise afflicting the Test side in the last couple of years: the sheer turbulence in personnel and batting order that has seen the team contorted and rotated like a Rubik’s Cube. In the last year alone, Bairstow has been asked to bat in every position from No 3 to No 7, whilst simultaneously opening in white-ball cricket. Ultimately Bairstow is responsible for his own record, but if he’s failed England, it’s worth asking whether England haven’t failed him a little too.
Elsewhere, the churn continues unabated. Having been promoted to No 3, Joe Root now returns to No 4 - do try and keep up at the back - with Joe Denly, having begun his career as opener, been moved down to No 3, then down to No 4, and then back up to open, moving back to No 3. There are first call-ups for Dom Sibley of Warwickshire and Zak Crawley of Kent, two promising young county openers. The unfortunate Jason Roy experiment appears to have run its course.
Pope is almost a certainty to add to his two Test caps after a stellar campaign with Surrey, at the end of which his first-class average of 57 (albeit from a relatively small sample size) puts him among the top couple of dozen in the history of the game. Pope will also take the gloves in case of injury to Jos Buttler. Ben Foakes, his Surrey teammate, can consider himself a touch unfortunate.
The most intriguing picks come in the bowling department. Injuries to James Anderson, Mark Wood and Olly Stone have given Lancashire fast bowler Saqib Mahmood his chance to impress. Quick, whippy and capable of hitting an awkward length at 90mph, the 22-year-old Mahmood has been on England’s radar for some time. Likewise his county team-mate Matt Parkinson, a leg-spinner whose has caught the eye in Twenty20 cricket, and will serve as understudy to Jack Leach.
Both Mahmood and Parkinson will also join the squad for the five-match T20 series which precedes the two Tests. Eoin Morgan has decided to stay on as captain, but a whole clutch of England’s World Cup stars will be rested for that tour: Roy, Root, Buttler, Ben Stokes, Jofra Archer, Moeen Ali. In their place England will take a look at some of the outstanding performers from this year’s Blast: Somerset’s exciting young batsman Tom Banton, all-rounder Lewis Gregory and Worcestershire’s death-overs specialist Pat Brown.
These are, in short, two intriguing selections: made with not just the future in mind but the past. Put bluntly, England have been underperforming in the longest and shortest formats for some time, and though many fans crave the days when they had a settled side where everyone knew their roles, the announcement of these two squads is a reminder that continuity is a luxury that only winning sides enjoy.