On a mixed day for England in Colombo, Jonny Bairstow made a statement hundred on his return to the side. Patrick Noone analyses how the tourists’ new number three went about his work.
The last two Tests cannot have been particularly enjoyable for Jonny Bairstow. Having sustained an injury while playing football, he watched Ben Foakes, his replacement with the gloves, come in and score a century on debut. For the second Test, Ben Stokes was moved up to number three, with all the talk suggesting that England would persist with him up the order for at least the remainder of the series. With Jos Buttler and Sam Curran contributing runs down the order, it was hard to see how Bairstow was going to get back in any time soon. All the possible roles he could fulfil were taken and the Yorkshireman appeared set for a spell carrying the drinks.
That’s the thing about this England side though; such is the transience of the batting order, the fluidity of the approach and the unpredictability of performance, in hindsight it’s perhaps not a surprise that Bairstow has returned so quickly. England made the decision that three seamers was excessive in the conditions they were expecting in Colombo and presumably felt that they had enough runs down the order to compensate for the omission of the unfortunate Curran. That meant a top order batting spot was freed up and Bairstow was back in as a specialist batsman.
There is an intensity about Bairstow at the best of times, but never more so than when he has a point to prove. He was noticeably busy from the moment he arrived at the crease; a man on a mission to re-cement his place in England’s XI. His first ball was driven authoritatively for four – pure timing that belied his recent lack of time in the middle.
Bairstow proceeded to leave just one of the first 66 balls he faced, though that was not a sign of recklessness. Only a third of those deliveries were attacked, a touch higher than his career average of 30% while only 11% of the balls he faced drew a false shot, lower than his career figure of 15%. This was an innings of controlled aggression, single-minded intent and high skill.
Bairstow missed out on England’s Pallekele sweep-a-thon, but he made up for lost time today. The reverse sweep is not one of his shots – he’s only played 14 in his entire Test career – but the conventional sweep was his most prolific shot today with 34 runs coming from the 27 he played. Having that as a scoring option meant that Bairstow scored more heavily than normal behind square on the leg-side, but he was still able to score at a similar rate through his preferred area of extra cover.
That area of Bairstow’s game – like many others – had come under scrutiny before this innings. After he cemented his place at the top of the order in England’s ODI team, there was talk that the success he enjoyed against the white ball was starting to compromise his game in the Test arena. It was explanation for his drop off in form; that he was getting himself leg-side of the ball in an attempt to flay the ball through the off-side. An effective shot in limited overs cricket but one that was perhaps too high-risk in Tests. There was little sign of that throughout his innings today, with only one ball that would have passed leg-stump being played through the off-side.
It was the third time that Bairstow’s batted at number three in a First Class match. The most recent was back in 2012 when he struck 139 for England Lions against India A. He might not feel like a natural fit for the position – who does in this England team? – but two hundreds in three innings when batting at first drop suggests that it’s a tactic that could work.
As was the case when Foakes came in for the first Test, England’s embarrassment of riches is giving them a ‘nice problem’ in terms of selection. Bairstow’s performance today only exacerbates that but there is plenty to be said for competition for places. Perhaps without the feeling that his place was on the line, Bairstow had become too comfortable in the England XI and his form dropped as a result. Today, without the safety net of the wicket-keeping gloves that he’s previously fallen back on, he had to make his runs do the talking. And what a statement it was.
Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz.