Jonny Bairstow was staggering at the crease. He had copped a ferocious blow to the chest by a Kemar Roach bouncer. It was his first ball in Test cricket, in 2012. The hunt was on and Roach and Fidel Edwards, who a year before had the debutant Virat Kohli hopping at the crease with his bumpers, went round the stumps and snarled.
“People were talking about how he is having problems against short balls. First ball of Test cricket hits me straight at my sternum. Next six overs, they go straight at my head,” Bairstow would recall years later to Taylor TV. “Next series was South Africa: (Dale) Styen, (Morne) Morkel and Co. – all going straight at my head.” Couple of years later, Bairstow had another torrid time in Australia. He would be dropped from the Test team for the next 18 months.
“Through the dark times, you question yourself – is it right to be dropped for 18 months? Are you content going to county (cricket)? Are you content not doing your best for your country? Or do you want to prove people wrong and prove to yourself that you are going to do it? That’s the difference in people who play international cricket for a long period of time,” Bairstow would say.
Twin 💯s in the Historic Test for the man who has made this English summer his own 🔥
Take a bow, Jonny Bairstow 🙌🏼
— Sony Sports Network (@SonySportsNetwk) July 5, 2022
He had returned home in a cloud of self- doubt and fear after that Ashes. He called his mentor Ian Dews, the then director of cricket at his home county Yorkshire. The two hit the nets, with an idea of overhauling his batting.
But what and how?
“First, the problem had to be identified. He wasn’t still at the crease,” Dews told The Indian Express.
“Bairstow stood in the nets with a raised back-lift and found he was better at being still,” said Dews. The balance felt better.
In his autobiography ‘A Clear Blue Sky’, Bairstow wrote about that day. “My original idea was simply to play straight. Get my balance. Get my head and eyes over the ball. I wanted to stop going after deliveries – and I also wanted to start playing them later rather than in front of me.”
Soon, a moment came that stunned Dews. “I was feeding him balls from the bowling machine at the indoor training area. He hit one ball so high and hard that it punched a hole in the wall behind me. He had started to hit the ball so hard that I thought I needed a helmet.” It was clear Bairstow wasn’t going to be content playing for the county.
2017 WACA at Perth, Australia: An injury to Jos Buttler opens the door for Bairstow. “Australia had the fastest recorded average for a bowling attack, 142.9 kmph,” Bairstow would say. He was making his comeback “on the fastest pitch going around”. But 119 glorious runs flowed off his bat, his first ton against Australia.
Something else changed this season. The way Bairstow can at times seem at the crease in Tests.
The angsty look of a forty-cigs-a-day man who had just given up the habit but is desperate for one celebratory puff at the end of the torture. That has evaporated from his visage.
These days he has stopped obsessing about his technique in the nets sessions. “I am hitting the balls for 5 minutes and walking off the nets. I am just trusting myself. Gone old school: few cuts, few drives, have a few throw-downs, thank you very much.” Bairstow told the BBC TMS after the win against India. The self-critical look has been abandoned, and the heart opened up some self love and joy.
“It’s a more relaxed me at the crease. I have gone back to young Jonny when he was watching the ball and hitting the ball. Sometimes a lot of rubbish is spoken about a lot of different things. Sometimes, it gets into your mind and clutters it. You just have to flick it,” Bairstow told Sky Sports after a scintillating ton in the run chase against New Zealand at Trent Bridge. “And listen to people who matter to you. Right now, I am listening to people who matter to me.”
Just one thing remained to be watched in the Test against India. How does he play the incoming ball from a full length, the delivery that troubled him in the first part of the series played last year. Time and again, the Indian seamers would slip it in to harass Bairstow. That very balance he had sought with his revamped stance, that stillness he had captured would elude him in those moments.
Incredibly, as he has started to attack more, his defence has also got tighter. Till the last day of the Edgbaston Test, the Indians tried to probe that line but Bairstow wasn’t ruffled. Down the bat came from that high back-lift to tap the ball. If it was in line of the middle-stump, he would defend. Such was his confidence that even if it was on the off-stump line, he would try to tap it away for a single. When they gave any width, he flayed.
As if he had borrowed the Sehwagism – “seedha aaya toh roko, baaki sab thoko!” (Defend the straight ball, smash everything else).
Jonny Bairstow’s last five innings: 136 (92), 162 (157), 71* (44), 106 (140), 114* (145)
589 runs from 578 balls at an average of 196
— Will Macpherson (@willis_macp) July 5, 2022
With that line of attack nullified, Bairstow has rolled India over. It hasn’t been all Bazballism as he showed in the first innings – playing a patient game, gathering just 11 runs from 60 balls as he wore down a tough phase of play with tuk-tuk cricket. Once Kohli stirred him with some verbals – and he would have probably gone after the lesser bowlers anyway after the spells of Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami had ended, he morphed into this free-flowing walloper of the cricket ball.
As he took to the air in his familiar style, punching his bat and fist after reaching his ton, the redheaded Bairstow – nicknamed Ron Weasley after the Harry Potter character – creased into a most lovely smile. No angst, no proving a point, no self-doubts – a man at peace and in joy with himself and the world.