The England men’s last match of the summer started with a slash, a catch, a cuss and a quick apology. Jason Roy threw his bat at Mitchell Starc’s opening ball and sliced a drive straight to backward point. In the silence of the empty ground, the curse he shouted out as he stomped into the dressing room came through loud and clear on the effects microphone. “Sorry for the choice language,” added Mike Atherton. It got worse. Joe Root was lbw to the very next delivery, so England were nought for two. Eoin Morgan was in now, while Jonny Bairstow waited at the other end, yet to face.
The usual thing to do in this situation would be to wind things in, the received wisdom says that when a team are two down without so much as a run on the board they ought to re-evaluate, retrench, and start slowly rebuilding the innings. Bairstow had other ideas. In the next over, he pounced on a rare full delivery from Josh Hazlewood and hit it crisply through extra cover for four. An over later, he hit Hazlewood for four more, square through point this time. Then, when Morgan took a three, Bairstow found himself squaring up to Starc for the first time; he was swinging it in, fast and full.
Bairstow swatted the third ball Starc bowled him over midwicket for one four, then he threw a pull, and top-edged another over the ’keeper’s head. Australia brought Pat Cummins into the attack – crash, Bairstow flicked him for six over square leg. Thump, he punched him through cover for four. Bairstow had faced 22 balls now, and scored 29 off them, five fours, a six, and a three. Hit hard, Bairstow had hit back harder, launched a counterattack that flipped the momentum of the innings around. In the next over, he turned Hazlewood away fine for four more, and brought up England’s 50.
Morgan fell soon after, but Bairstow cruised on. He looked superb, as if he had found his mid-season touch in these last late days of summer. At his best there is a brisk efficiency about Bairstow’s strokeplay, the ruthless dispatchfulness of a man who simply wants to get on with the job of winning in a knockout. There are no flourishes, no extravagances or extraneous movements – at times it even feels like there is almost no follow-through to his shots, as if he considers it a frippery he can do without. He watches, eyes wide, waits, stock still, and then he throws his blows.
It was a fantastic innings. But then, in the end, he’s proven himself a fantastic batsman in this format. This was his 10th one-day international century. Only Root, Morgan and Marcus Trescothick have made more for England. Just as he did when he made 139 during England’s world record score of 481 at Trent Bridge a couple of years back, Bairstow tucked into the short boundary at Old Trafford with a trencherman’s relish, as if he thought it would be wasteful to spurn such a gift. He only slowed once he’d made it to 75, and the bowlers had started to settle. He took 20 runs off his next 40 balls, and let Sam Billings pick up the attack.
It was Billings who inadvertently helped make Bairstow the player he is. In 2017, when Bairstow was struggling to get into this team, England promoted Billings up to open, even gave him the wicketkeeper’s gloves when Jos Buttler was missing. Bairstow was incensed (as he often seems to be, his grudges seem to come easily). He finally got his chance as a replacement for Jason Roy during the Champions Trophy. Since then, he has made 2,560 runs at an average a lick over 50 and a strike rate of 108. The only opener who has scored more in that time is Rohit Sharma, and the only opener who has made his runs faster is his partner, Roy.
Bairstow fits in in limited-overs cricket, the role seems to come easily to him, in a way the requirements of the Test game never quite did. They love him in the Indian Premier League, and he is one of the group of players flying out to Dubai in the morning to play in this year’s competition.
He is 31, and could yet decide to give the rest of his career to white-ball cricket. He says he still wants to play Tests, but the scuttlebutt is that he is going to be cut from the next set of central red-ball contracts when they’re announced. Analysts argue that the way he has tailored his game to limited-overs cricket has had the knock-on effect of hindering his defence.
And it is true that Bairstow hasn’t made a first class hundred in the past two years, since he hit one batting at No 3 for the Test team in Sri Lanka. Still, being the sort he is, he may yet prove everyone wrong. But if he doesn’t, he shouldn’t begrudge it, he will still go down as one of England’s greatest one-day players.