Bairstow entering pantheon of the great ODI batsmen
Opener’s fluent destruction of Ireland’s bowlers shows he now deserves to be ranked with the finest white-ball players
We need to talk about Jonny. It has often felt this way in English cricket in recent years, where it has been hard to escape discussions about Bairstow in the Test team. Should he keep? Where should he bat? Should he play at all?
Somewhere along the way, the story of his development into one of England’s greatest white-ball cricketers has been lost.
In the history of one-day international cricket, 70 players have scored 2,000 runs opening the batting. Bairstow has the second best average of this group – and the best strike rate of the lot. He is an ODI marvel, marrying the consistency needed to average 50.2 with a strike rate of 111 – a ruthless exploiter of the fielding restrictions and reliable run-scorer all wrapped up in one.
Traditionally, opening in ODIs is about making a choice. Some players, such as Geoff Marsh, Alastair Cook and Gary Kirsten, provided solidity. Others, such as Brendon McCullum, Shahid Afridi and Sanath Jayasuriya, prioritised exploiting the fielding restrictions. Even the phenomenons Virender Sehwag and Adam Gilchrist averaged only 36 opening, showing how their belligerence was accompanied by relative inconsistency.
Comparing players between eras in ODIs is harder than in any other format; rules and average scores have constantly evolved. Yet, while he has played far less than them, Bairstow’s career is shaping up so he can be grouped among the very elite openers – Saeed Anwar, David Warner, Rohit Sharma and even Sachin Tendulkar – who scored more quickly and more reliably than their contemporaries.
Absurd as it is to think now, in England’s rebuild after the 2015 World Cup, Bairstow was initially marked out for a role as a middleorder spare part. When there was a temporary vacancy as opener at the start of 2017, England entrusted the role to Sam Billings instead of Bairstow. And when Jos Buttler missed ODIs to play in the Indian Premier League, Billings was handed the gloves.
Bairstow was piqued. He channelled his frustration into scoring abundantly; he moved up to open with Yorkshire, sensing it might be his best route into England’s side. Yet when he was thrust into opening in the Champions Trophy semifinal in 2017, after Jason Roy’s form collapsed, it seemed a temporary solution; he had opened only seven times in county one-day cricket.
His fluent 82 against Ireland on Saturday was merely the latest reminder that Bairstow is becoming – perhaps already is – the consummate modern ODI opener, combining old-age consistency with the pyrotechnics that the age of T20 demands. While Roy can begin even more destructively, Bairstow has found a way to start quickly – with a strike rate of 90 in his first 10 balls – with minimal risk. He is adept thumping both pace and spin; indeed, his average and strike rate against spin are even better than against pace. Remarkably, all nine of his centuries have come at a strike rate above 100.
Even before being England’s second top scorer in last year’s World Cup triumph, Bairstow entered rarefied territory in a dazzling maiden IPL campaign. His 445 runs, in 10 games, was the second highest tally any Englishman has managed in the IPL.
Bairstow now has an aura at the crease, a testament to his extraordinary skill and drive. But it also reflects how, a few years ago, he moved his technique to be more leg side of the ball; as CricViz’s Freddie Wilde has shown, this compromised his Test defence while empowering him to hit through the off side in white-ball cricket.
There is still a strand in English cricket that thinks this trade-off is not worth it. But this tweak helped England win their first World Cup and made Bairstow one of the best white-ball batsmen in the world.
In a sense, he is caught between worlds: the traditional demands of English cricket – for players to master the Test game – and the opportunities other formats now present. Bairstow may or may not play Tests again. In some ways, it does not matter: his legacy as one of England’s greatest white-ball batsmen is already assured.