By Richard Edwards
It took Jack Russell eight long years of work behind the stumps for his county before he was deemed sufficiently experienced to play for his country. Jonny Bairstow, in contrast, has had to do his growing up in a very different environment.
The Yorkshireman was first brought in as a wicketkeeper during the ill-fated Ashes tour of 2013/14, taking up the gauntlets as England looked to strengthen a batting line-up that had long since been exposed as wafer-thin by a marauding Mitchell Johnson.
It wasn’t a roaring success but the blame could hardly be laid at Bairstow’s door, with England in complete disarray by the time he entered the fray.
An injury to Jos Buttler during England’s 2016 series against Pakistan then handed him an additional opportunity behind the stumps, after calls for him to hand back the gloves following a mixed showing against Sri Lanka earlier that year.
He hasn’t looked back since, grasping his chance with both hands and firmly establishing himself as one of England’s most reliable and consistent performers with both bat and gloves.
It has been a remarkable transformation given the doubts that England harboured over his ability to do both jobs as recently as last summer. That series against Sri Lanka highlighted the kind of flaws that were to be expected of a keeper who had spent so little time behind the stumps in competitive cricket.
Now, though, after working tirelessly with wicketkeeping coach, Bruce French, Bairstow is suddenly the least of England’s worries going into the Ashes. Instead all the questions being asked are of Aussie hopefuls Matthew Wade and Peter Nevill, neither of whom is remotely in Bairstow’s league as a batsman.
“I suppose it tells you how much Jonny has come on that no-one is talking about him going into this series,” says Russell, who won 54 caps between 1988 and 1998.
“He’s one of our most reliable batsmen and his keeping has come on absolutely massively in the past 18 months too.
“I saw him against South Africa two or three years back and I could have filled three pages of your paper with some of the technical issues he had.
“You have to give a lot of credit to Bruce French, though, who works with him on a regular basis. It’s not easy when you’re not keeping all the time for both your county and your country.
“You make mistakes, learn your skills and generally sort yourself out in county cricket but Jonny hasn’t had that luxury. It would usually take at two years to work your game out at county level so for him to do it for England, under scrutiny and in front of the cameras that pick up every little detail shows immense character.
“When I see him, he always comes up and has a chat about keeping so he always wants to learn. I’m just so pleased for him.”
The emergence of Bairstow as both a wicketkeeper and a batsman capable of taking a game away from the opposition in a session has been one of the major boons of Trevor Bayliss’s reign as coach.
Bairstow was the leading runscorer in Test cricket throughout 2016 and although he hasn’t scored so prodigiously this year he is still a pivotal player in this England line-up. It’s another indicator of how far he’s come that Buttler is now viewed as a one-day specialist and no longer as a potential Test wicketkeeper, a position that has now been taken by Ben Foakes, for this Ashes tour.
Russell endured more than enjoyed his own Ashes experiences Down Under, more often than not finding himself on the wrong end of an Aussie mauling in front of the baying masses at Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Melbourne and Sydney. Despite that, he believes that there are few better places in the cricket world to keep wicket.
“The only problem you have there is that the ball can turn and bounce sometimes, but generally it’s far tougher keeping wicket in England than it is in Australia,” he says.
“Adelaide will be an English-style wicket but elsewhere you get a lot of time to move your feet, the slips can stand wider. I remember standing on the edge of the circle at Perth and running either way to take balls off Devon because he didn’t knew where it was going.
“I could run five to ten yards either side but it wasn’t a problem as it was such a lovely place to keep wicket. I think Jonny will keep well there and I think whoever plays for the Aussies will do too. For the Aussies, though, it’s more about runs and all the pressure is going to be on whoever comes in and tries to do what Jonny does. Their keeper will be under a lot more pressure than ours.”
A good start of Bairstow in Brisbane should set him for the series. England will hope that either Wade or Nevill fail to follow his lead.