One summer, when he was 16 years old, carefree and on the very verge of life itself, Jonny Bairstow and a few of his friends went on a surfing holiday to Cornwall. One evening, he tells us in his autobiography, A Clear Blue Sky, they were sitting blissfully on the beach in Newquay when someone asked what everyone’s father did for a living. Bairstow explained in an even voice that his own father had died some years earlier. There was an awkward silence. And then someone laughed: a cruel, disbelieving, illogical laugh. Feeling the tears welling inside him, shaking with rage and embarrassment and loss, Bairstow simply got up and walked away, walked until he could walk no further.
The lesson Bairstow learned that night – a lesson we all learn and relearn in various ways – is that the moments of greatest pain frequently arise out of the moments of greatest joy. Often they come wrapped in the same clothes. Out of the golden memories of his father, David, comes the bitter recollection of his death when Johnny was just eight. Out of the grief comes a resolve to honour his memory by following him as a wicketkeeper-batsman for Yorkshire and England. Out of this lifelong ambition comes some of his most crushing disappointments. On it goes: pain and joy pursuing and nourishing each other, a bittersweet compact that can never truly be broken.
To watch Bairstow in England’s recent series against India was to be reminded of this cycle. Out of the boundless optimism of his recall in Sri Lanka, the agony of Ahmedabad: three torturous ducks in his four innings, a game in pieces, a mind scrambled.
On Sunday, England’s head coach, Chris Silverwood, had warm words of encouragement for the spinner Dom Bess, insisting it would be “unfair to write him off” after a tough tour. Accidentally or not, no such consolation was offered to Bairstow. And so, with an average of 23 since the start of the 2018 summer, the broad consensus – offered with varying degrees of kindness – is that Bairstow’s Test career has run its course for now.
In a way, this would be largely in keeping with the ballad of Bairstow: a player of 203 international appearances who curiously never felt established. Like Moeen Ali, another natural introvert whose lavish all-round talents never earned him true acceptance, the story of Bairstow is of a player fighting his way to the heart of the side against the centrifugal forces spinning him outwards. Valued enough to play, but not enough to be given a settled role in the side. With other players, the conversation is always about what they can do. Whether it was keeping, his technique, his attitude or simply a sense his face didn’t fit, too often with Bairstow it was about what he couldn’t.
Good players do not lose their way overnight. For Bairstow, perhaps the trouble began when England’s new national selector, Ed Smith, shunted him up the order to make room for Jos Buttler as a specialist No 7. At the time, Bairstow was averaging almost 40, rapidly improving behind the stumps. Yet from that moment, he was treated largely like a spare part: forced to adapt to different roles from series to series, occasionally even from innings to innings.
Since the home series against India in 2018, Bairstow has changed batting positions 14 times in 18 Tests. In the same period he played one Test with the gloves, then one without, then one with, then three without, then seven with, then five without. In the same period he was left out and recalled on four occasions. It is four years since he batted an entire series (of at least three Tests) in the same position. Injuries, conditions, pandemic-enforced flux: these are all factors. Bairstow could simply have ended the debate by making runs wherever he was put. But realistically, what did we think was going to happen here?
These are disorienting times. Players are shuffled in and out of bubbles; Test sides are now picked weeks or even months in advance. England’s rotation policy is correct and necessary, but equally it’s tempting to wonder how they square their much-vaunted commitment to player welfare with the men’s team being forced to play a brutal schedule of 51 fixtures in 2019. Even in this respect Bairstow’s treatment felt exceptional: while Buttler, Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer all had a well-deserved rest before the Ashes, Bairstow was thrown into a Test against Ireland barely a week after the World Cup final.
Losing a Test series in India is no big deal. Players drift out of form. People have wildly differing opinions about who should play when. This is all fine. But filter out the noise, take a longer view, and it is impossible to conclude England have given Bairstow the best chance of fulfilling his potential. That breakthrough 150 in Cape Town, the century at Perth, even his momentum-shifting innings against Australia at Headingley: the good times have been plentiful. The sadness is that with a little more love, it could so easily have been more.
The relief is that the best may be yet to come. There are white-ball matches against India starting this week, a Twenty20 World Cup in October, a return to Sunrisers Hyderabad in the Indian Premier League, where he has discovered the love and stability that so often proved elusive with England.
If great pain arises out of great joy, then perhaps the comfort for Bairstow – even now – is that the reverse must also be true.