By Chris Stocks
It is testament to Jonny Bairstow that amid all the talk of changes following England’s crushing defeat at Trent Bridge there was little about the Yorkshireman’s position as wicket-keeper.
This summer Bairstow’s improvements behind the stumps have been plain to see. Indeed, the fact not many people are talking about it illustrates the old maxim that a keeper is doing his best work when going unnoticed.
There was the odd rumble after that second Test loss to South Africa about a potential call-up for Ben Foakes, with the caveat that it would allow Bairstow to move up the order from five.
It was a notion, though, that was never seriously entertained by anybody, such has been the assuredness of Bairstow’s work in the field so far this summer.
Those improvements mean the 27-year-old is starting to fill the void left by the retirement of Matt Prior, who played his last Test in 2014.
Despite the recriminations England have faced since Trent Bridge and the feeling they are going backwards in Test cricket, Bairstow’s success is at least one bright spot for the team right now.
Indeed, it has been a godsend given England have so far failed to find successful long-term replacements for Andrew Strauss as an opener and Jonathan Trott at number three despite gaps of five and three years respectively since either last played. Yet Bairstow shouldn’t be seen as a replacement for Prior, but perhaps an upgrade.
That’s saying something given Prior averaged 40.18 across his 79 Tests. Bairstow’s is 40.58 after 40, but his average in the 21 matches since he took over the gloves from Jos Buttler for the Sharjah Test against Pakistan in November 2015 is a stunning 53.18.
Bairstow’s ability with the bat has never been in question. His glovework, though, has often been.
Now he has improved so much in that area he has the chance to not only overtake Prior in England’s list of wicketkeeper-batsmen, but also the great Alec Stewart.
It wasn’t always this way. It’s little over a year since Bairstow gave a tetchy press conference at Headingley following a Test against Sri Lanka which had seen him take nine catches behind the stumps and score his maiden Test hundred on home soil.
At that stage Bairstow’s keeping was still under the microscope given he had dropped three chances in his previous Test against South Africa at Centurion a few months previously. In fact he had dropped quite a few in the Tests preceding that as well.
So asked whether he’d like to stay behind the stumps, he replied: “For the 52nd time in two weeks, I do want to keep wicket.
“Yes. I think this needs to be swept under the table now and put to bed. I think I’ve been asked it too many times.
“As I’ve said numerous times before, I wouldn’t have kept wicket for Yorkshire for seven years if I didn’t want to keep wicket for England.”
Bairstow then went into full-on strop mode when questioned on what technical changes he had made to improve his keeping.
“I’ve done about 15 sessions with Bruce French [England’s wicketkeeping coach] since we’ve been back from South Africa,” he said. “On that tour, everyone spoke about this thing – left-hand movement with your left foot.
“If you’d like to give me an explanation of what you think that was, I’d love to know about it because there’s a lot of things people talk about that I’d love to know about because obviously they’ve kept wicket for however many years and know all the technicalities of it. If people want to go into the intricacies of keeping wicket, I think it would be quite interesting.”
Surprisingly, nobody took Bairstow up on the offer. However, one person he did chat to about the intricacies of keeping – Mark Boucher – may hold the key to his improvement over the past year or so.
Boucher, who played 147 Tests and holds the record for most dismissals by a wicketkeeper with 555, was approached by the Yorkshireman during that Centurion Test in January last year.
Boucher, who retired after sustaining an eye injury on South Africa’s last tour of England in 2012, said: “He said he needed to learn the art of his trade and hence the chat with me.
“It shows a good character who understands he is still learning, which is a fantastic trait.
“The signs are there, stick with him, a little bit of nurturing and he could be one of the greats.”
That nurturing by French, who was also integral in Prior’s improvements after a difficult start to his international career, has worked wonders these past few months.
If Bairstow can keep up the consistency that has seen him establish himself as his country’s undoubted number-one Test keeper, then Boucher’s prediction may well come true.
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