By Tim Wigmore
The denouement was strangely apt. Jonny Bairstow – needing to swing for the hills because, well, there was no alternative – lined up an expansive drive against Mitchell Starc. The ball crashed into his stumps, dislodging the bails, which flashed on the floor. And Australia were 2-0 up in the Ashes series.
Bairstow’s reputation as England’s second finest batsman is hard-won. When he debuted in Test cricket, in 2012, he struggled with the short ball. He played brilliantly at Lord’s in 2012 against South Africa, as a stand-in for Kevin Pietersen. But he spend much of the following two years flitting in and out of the side. There were games as a wicketkeeper, including a couple of underwhelming displays in the fag-end of England’s Ashes whitewash four years ago. There were games as a specialist batsman, too. But Bairstow was a cricketer in need of a role.
After Jos Buttler was dropped in 2015, after struggling in the home Ashes and against Pakistan in the UAE, Bairstow found it. He scored a brilliant maiden Test century in South Africa – happy to be overshadowed by Ben Stokes’ 258 – and has not even come close to being dropped since.
Now, the only uncertainty surrounds Bairstow’s batting position. Is he a number seven, England’s very own Adam Gilchrist? Or should he bat higher than that?
After Stokes was unavailable for the start of the Ashes, it was widely assumed that both Bairstow and Moeen Ali would slot up a place apiece in the batting order, to six and seven. Instead, Moeen leapt from eight to six, and Bairstow remained at seven, something that he was none too happy about.
Which brings us back to that second innings in Adelaide where, not for the first time on this Ashes tour, Bairstow’s batting has looked like a wasted resource. His dismissal out attacking was borne of the simple realisation that the time left for England to score runs was finite. Defend, and Australia would soon bowl England out anyway.
So far on this Ashes, Bairstow has been at the crease for 73.4 overs, and spent 42 of those batting with the tail. This is England’s second best batsman, a man who has three scores of 140 or above in Test cricket, left at seven – or eight as when, like in the second innings at Adelaide, England use a nightwatchman. While England’s number two, three and five have a top score of 83 in 21 Test matches, England have a man with the proven capacity to score Test centuries, and are not giving him the chance to do so.
It gets worse. In the period between the new ball losing its hardness and the second new ball coming into play, Australia’s most important bowler is Nathan Lyon. He is also superb against left-handers, and has taken 10 of his 11 Test wickets during this series against them. England’s current batting order affords Lyon ample opportunity to get into a rhythm against left-handers, with Dawid Malan at five and then Moeen at six. Lyon against Moeen increasingly looks like the 2017/18 Ashes in microcosm: Lyon has dismissed him four times out of four, and has 11 wickets at 22.72 apiece, to Moeen’s two at 98.00.
So the case for promoting Bairstow to six is overwhelming: a way of giving England’s second best batsman more time at the wicket, and disrupting Australia’s rhythm.
Perhaps the more intriguing question is whether England should go further than that. They could lift Bairstow to five, with Malan or even James Vince then shuffling down to six. They could bring in Ben Foakes for another batsman and make Bairstow a specialist batsman. Perhaps most radically of all, they could ask whether Bairstow could solve England’s problems at number three. He would love to keep the gloves, but if he became England’s number three, the most iconic batting position in the sport, it would hardly be a snub. If it sounds outlandish, consider how well Bairstow has done as opener for England in ODI cricket this year.
The sight of Bairstow looking back at the wreckage of his stumps, while Australia revelled in another victory, was also a symbol of England wasting one of their finest batting resources. Whatever they choose to do with Bairstow at Perth, he is too strong a batsman, and his teammates too weak, for him to be allowed to stay at seven.
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