Ben Jones analyses England’s opening pair.
At some point, it came to be known as a “Meet Cute”. That moment in a film where the two prettiest people on the poster accidentally reach for the same ‘Belle and Sebastian’ record, or drop the same JD Salinger book outside the university library. The two protagonists in a romantic comedy, living their separate lives, stumble together in an unusual scenario, flung together by good fortune. In When Harry Met Sally, it’s two strangers sharing a lift across the country; in Groundhog Day its that Bill Murray is trapped trying to impress the same girl on the same day for eternity; in Jonny and Jason, it’s that one of England’s firecracker openers wouldn’t be there without the other’s failure.
Go with it. Think back to the Champions Trophy, in 2017, in the days before England’s semi-final against Pakistan. Jason Roy was a struggling opening batsman, averaging 6.00 in the tournament, looking about as out of nick as a player of his ability can. Jonny Bairstow was a grizzled man on the rise, in the midst of a two-year-long crusade to claw his way into every England XI. Trevor Bayliss and co took a call, before the semi-final in Cardiff, that the former would be replaced by the latter. They crossed paths, Jason leaving as Jonny arrived. Their eyes might have met in the revolving door of the dressing room, so close but kept apart by circumstance.
England lost in Cardiff, as we all know, but they didn’t abandon their new opening pair. They persisted with Hales and Bairstow together for three matches, with mixed results, partnerships of 31, 21* and 27 not exactly convincing. Then Bristol happened.
Hales and Ben Stokes, quite reasonably, were removed from the side, and England needed a new opening pair. Roy was the logical choice, reinstated at a time of crisis. Thrown in to share the opening berth by an inciting incident, our two protagonists were brought together.
And so it began. Bairstow and Roy first opened together at The Oval, in September 2017. They put on 126 in 17 overs, then two days later in Southampton, put on 156 in 22. They hit the ground running, two players who seemed to complete each other’s game, to finish each other’s sentences with a lofted straight drive. The chemistry was palpable from the get-go.
Since then, they have barely looked back. They have the most runs for an England opening partnership ever; they have more than twice as many century stands as any other England opening pair; they’ve done it all while scoring at quicker than 7 runs-per-over. The records these two have collected, in just under two years of playing together, is staggering.
Bairstow and Roy have made 2063 runs together in ODI cricket, something only 89 other pairs have done in ODI history – and not a single one of those pairs has scored as quickly.
The rate at which they score has become the calling-card of their partnership, but it’s not all they have to offer. As swaggering as their strokeplay is, they have matched their aggression with substance. Roy and Bairstow average 66 runs as a partnership, the best average for any established ODI opening pair in history.
A key part of their strength is how the positive aspects of their batting dovetail into the other’s. Roy’s average of 39 against spin in the last two years is not elite, and could be punished by bowling spinners early, but it’s a gamble to do so given Bairstow’s average of 87; for Bairstow’s lower average against pace, vice versa. They are a nightmare to bowl to, the weaknesses of the one protected by the strengths of the other. Better together, they amplify the good parts of the other’s game.
What Roy and Bairstow have managed to do, essentially, is combine the benefits of pinch-hitting and of laying a platform. They have managed to be the most consistently productive opening pair in history, in terms of runs scored, whilst also being the quickest scoring. For these two, there is no compromise.
It’s no surprise then that the wheels came off when injury kept these two apart. England made two weak starts in a row, first against Sri Lanka and then against Australia. Panic spread. It’s even less of a surprise that when they were reunited on Sunday, that panic was dispelled. Bairstow and Roy proved that they can do things as a pair that others can’t at the top of the order. When the top three has consisted of Root, Bairstow and Roy, England have lost just five matches.
Bairstow got the century against India, but England won because of the opening partnership. At the start of the game, England’s chances with WinViz were 37%; when Roy departed, it was 76%. The battering that India’s bowlers took wasn’t some “macho” display, it was decisive in turning the game England’s way. There has been a lot of rather self-interested criticism of England’s batting style in the last week or so, criticism that hasn’t paid due deference to the fact that this style has worked, over a long period of time on a lot of different surfaces.
The two men who’ve made that strategy work most are there at the top of the order. It is much, much easier for everyone else to do their hitting when the platform has been laid, when Jonny and Jason have done their work. They are England’s power-couple, the central relationship that keeps England ticking. As long as Eoin Morgan can keep this cricketing romance alive, England’s World Cup could still end happily ever after.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.