By Chris Stocks
For Jonny Bairstow, memories of his first Boxing Day Test at the MCG are special, even if, much like this tour, the results of that series in 2013-14 left a lot to be desired.
“Ninety-two thousand people on Boxing Day – that’s my first memory,” he says. “It was an amazing spectacle and something when you’re growing up you always hear about.
“It’s one of the iconic occasions in world cricket. I think to be fortunate enough to play in one was amazing, a fantastic experience, although the result wasn’t what we wanted.”
Like four years ago, Bairstow moved to Melbourne this week with England already 3-0 down in the series and with the Ashes gone. This time, though, the squad are a lot more united. Bairstow was thrown the gloves for the first time in a Test match after incumbent Matt Prior was dropped. Graeme Swann had also just retired and with the dressing-room in open revolt, England’s tour was chaotic to say the least.
It was an experience that toughened the-then 24-year-old Bairstow up and is something he has used to help him make the wicketkeeping position his own since coming back into the team in place of Jos Buttler for the final Test against Pakistan at Sharjah in November 2015.
“I hadn’t really played much on that tour so all of a sudden you’re keeping wicket and you’re batting having not played all that much,” he recalls of that Melbourne match in 2013. “I hadn’t kept a full season for Yorkshire before that. So, in a way, I was thrown in at the deep end. But I had to find a way of dealing with it and learning from it.
“There’s been a lot of cricket since then – a lot of ups and a lot of downs, there’s been things in between as well. I’ll be calling on those experiences in this match and they’ll be something that resonate.”
All being well, Bairstow will play his 50th Test in the final match of this series in Sydney in the New Year. That is something that seemed a long way off even two years ago before his maiden Test hundred against South Africa in Cape Town. Since then he is averaging 48.83 in Test cricket and will come into next week’s fourth Test on the back of his maiden Ashes century after he was moved up the order to six in Perth.
“It means a huge amount for me,” he said of the 50th Test landmark. “When you go through the tough times and people question you as a person, your technique, everything that you’re about and you’ve worked so hard since you were a kid to be playing for England, it gets quite tough.
“So yes, it’s going to be a really proud day for me, my friends back home, the people who were there in the really good times and those that were there in the tough times. It will be a special, special day.”
Bairstow’s technique – especially against the short ball – was questioned on numerous occasions during the early part of his career after he made his Test debut against the West Indies at Lord’s in the summer of 2012.
His keeping, too, was a live issue, especially in the first few months of 2016 after numerous high-profile drops in the away series against South Africa. Those questions have stopped now, though, and that’s the way Bairstow wants to keep it – quiet.
“Don’t mention that!” he says. “The less that can be spoken about that, the better. As a keeper, if you’re going unnoticed you’re doing your job. Look, it’s something I’ve worked incredibly hard on, but I feel there’s still plenty more to come with my batting and my keeping. The longer that can keep going, the better for me, for Yorkshire, for England.”
After being promoted up to six in this Ashes series, there are still those who believe the Yorkshireman should be liberated from the gloves so he can move even further up the order. Ben Foakes, they say, is a great alternative and couldn’t Bairstow go as high as number three or, if Root moves up, four?
But how high does Bairstow believe he could bat if he remains as keeper?
“You could potentially bat anywhere,” he says. “(Kumar) Sangakkara batted anywhere, didn’t he? To be honest with you, I don’t really mind where I’m batting.”
As for this Ashes series, where has it gone wrong for England? “We’ve played some good cricket but we haven’t done it for long enough,” admits Bairstow. “We realise that. That’s effectively where they’ve got the better of us in this series – those crucial moments.”
As for the various off-field issues, including Bairstow’s ‘headbutt’ greeting of Australia opener Cameron Bancroft in a Perth bar at the start of this tour, the Yorkshireman says England have no excuses for what has happened on the field or grudges for how it’s gone down off it.
“You can delve so far into loads of different bits, you could name little things here, little things there and nit-pick and say, ‘This isn’t right’ or ‘That isn’t right’,” he says. “Naturally, there’s always going to be something. But we’re not a group of whingers. We just knuckle down, crack on and work hard.”
And there is much hard work for Bairstow and his team-mates to do over the next fortnight or so if they are to avoid another Ashes whitewash.
Jonny Bairstow was speaking to raise awareness of Yorkshire Tea National Cricket Week with Chance to Shine – inspiring the next generation of cricketers.
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