Richard Edwards speaks to an England great behind the stumps about the form of their current gloveman
Jonny Bairstow has been hailed as a world beater by former England star Jack Russell after his amazing year behind, and in front of, the stumps.
The Yorkshireman looks set to end 2016 as the leading Test run scorer in the calendar year, having already eclipsed the previous highest total by a wicketkeeper during England’s tour of Bangladesh.
Bairstow’s year began in stunning style in Cape Town when he notched his first Test century during a staggeringly brutal stand of 399 with Ben Stokes. He has since hit two more hundreds and seven 50s in a year that has seen him establish himself as the No.1 wicketkeeper/batsman in world cricket.
Even more remarkable is the fact that his run-scoring feats have come hand in hand with a gradual and consistent improvement in his glovework, a fact that Russell is quick to acknowledge.
“He’s on a different level, to come from where he started the year to now is testament to his attitude and the hard work he has put in,” says Russell. “Maybe his achievement has gone a little bit under the radar but it shouldn’t because it’s an astonishing one.
“Maybe Stewie (Alec Stewart) would have come close (to being the leading run scorer in a calendar year) a few times but to actually score more runs than any other player while also keeping wicket is something we should be shouting about. He’s a world class performer.”
Eyebrows were raised when Bairstow was first handed the gauntlets for the third Test of England’s tour of the UAE to face Pakistan last November, taking over from a struggling Jos Buttler. But he hasn’t looked back since.
Clearly thriving on the responsibility of being England’s No.1 behind the stumps, Bairstow’s batting has reached another level, first against South Africa and then at home this summer against Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
A disappointing Test in Dhaka aside, Bairstow has looked equally as comfortable in Bangladesh and India.
“When he first came in he was still what I would call a keeper in nappies – he was still learning,” says Russell. “But the more he does, the better he’ll get. If you look at Matt Prior, whose keeping at the start had a lot of rough edges to it, by the time he got to 31 or 32 he was at his peak.
“Jonny is still only 27 so he has still got a lot of time on his side. His best is still to come and he has moved forward tremendously. The more he does, the more he’ll learn.
“You have to feel a little bit sorry for these guys really because they’re effectively learning their trade in the spotlight at Test match level.
“I had two or three years of county cricket where I was still really working out what I had to do – I played for five or six years before I got picked for England, too, so I really had my grounding in the county game.
“That doesn’t happen today and you really have to give Jonny a pat on the back for what he has done and what he’s doing.
“He has come a long way in a year, an awfully long way.”
The challenge of keeping wicket in India to a leg-spinner who is certainly giving it a rip has added another layer of complexity to Bairstow’s job on some of the toughest pitches to keep on in world cricket.
So far, he has shown he’s up to the task.
“Keeping to a leg-spinner is probably one of the hardest things you have to do,” says Russell. “If you’re keeping to an orthodox spinner you pretty much know it’s going to go straight on or turn the way you expect it to.
“With a leggie it can go three ways. You have to take your hat off to Ian Healy who kept so well to Warne towards the end of his career.
“Obviously, Jonny would have kept to Adil in county cricket which would have helped and I think these two could build a special partnership if they stay together in the Test side.
“It could be a bit like Alan Knott and Derek Underwood. If you play with that guy for your county then you sometimes get the feeling of what they’re going to do before they’ve even bowled the ball.
“In terms of Jonny, his attitude, his professionalism and his overall approach is absolutely first-class. I’m not surprised his keeping has improved so much in such a short space of time.”
Both Rashid and Bairstow will hope their burgeoning partnership continues to blossom as England chase the series in Mumbai and Chennai. Coming back to draw the series after two successive defeats would rank as one of Test cricket’s greatest ever comebacks.
As Bairstow has shown in the past 12 months, though, anything is possible.
This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, December 2 2016
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