Jonny Bairstow: ‘Every sportsman has to compromise. Even at the top of his game’
Jonny Bairstow is reflecting on the cricketing cauldron he stepped into during England’s first innings in the third Test in Perth last December, as he joined Dawid Malan to face down the bucking, rearing might of the Aussie pace attack in full flow. ‘It was the most difficult bit of bowling I’ve experienced in international cricket, with three guys bringing it down at 140kph,’ he says. ‘It’s fight or flight. Your heart’s thumping, your adrenaline’s going and you know if you get one wrong, it’ll hurt. You can either get out of the way, or get on with it.’
Bairstow did the latter, with typical Yorkshire pluck and defiance, and ticked off a bucket list item in the process: his first Ashes century, making him only the sixth England wicketkeeper to get one. Not that it did his side much good, despite a record fifth-wicket partnership of 237 with Malan. After Bairstow went for 119, England crumbled, as was an all too frequent occurrence throughout the winter’s miserable tour.
When we speak, Bairstow has been back from the tour for just a few days. While many of his colleagues will have been soul-searching and worrying about their places in the side, Bairstow can at least rest easy as one of the few players who played well Down Under – arguably he was England’s best performer. Another Test century against the Kiwis and four ODI tons – one of them off just 58 balls – plus success with the gloves left him looking as comfortable as he ever has in an England shirt.
‘I was really pleased with the way I went. Keeping wicket through a whole tour and coming out unscathed isn’t easy, and to score some runs too was pretty gratifying.’
As a youngster, short and slight of build but with the ability to thump balls over the boundary at will, Bairstow, with his thick mop of copper red hair, was given the predictable nickname Ron Weasley by his schoolmates. At that time, he might just as easily have become a rugby player, idolising the bravery and relentless work ethic of Jonny Wilkinson over any cricket player.
Teal gabardine double-breasted suit, £845, by Richard James; burnt orange merino/silk/cashmere crew neck, £350, by Gieves & Hawkes; Rolex watch (Jonny’s own)
Except perhaps one. That he settled on cricket, and succeeded so greatly, is testament to a particular brand of grit and courage, given that he has followed so closely in the footsteps of his father, David Bairstow, a beloved figure in Yorkshire cricket of the 1970s and ’80s and a wicketkeeper/batsman himself, who tragically took his own life when Jonny was just eight years old.
Bairstow’s mother was ill with breast cancer when his father died – the inner steel required to soldier on and thrive, and to smash 119 off the world’s most feared pace attack, has come from her.
‘From a young age you’ve got choices either to feel sorry for yourself or not,’ he says. ‘Mum was very ill at that time, and it was her choice to keep going forwards, and I’ve taken that attitude and mentality with me.’
Bairstow’s excellent book, A Clear Blue Sky, published last year, tells in deeply personal detail the story of both his own rise to cricketing glory, and the story of the beloved father to whom he’s inevitably compared, and whose nickname, ‘Bluey’, was eventually conferred on him – even though, as he points out, the fact that he became a wicketkeeper too is more coincidence than written in the stars.
The book is a story of compromise and determination. Bairstow, after all, is someone who was in and out of the England set-up for four years, and in 2014 even considered dropping cricket altogether and trying his hand at rugby again, such was his despondency. ‘I’ve been dropped six times from the Test team, but you have to just keep coming back,’ says the 28-year-old. ‘It’s really about your work ethic and how much you want to get playing for England.’
And that ethic delivers form? ‘Form is this mythical thing – it’s largely the mental side of the game,’ he continues. ‘One minute you get dropped, another you nick one you should miss and hit a boundary. I try not to think about it – if you over-complicate it, that’s when it gets difficult.’
In Bairstow’s case, it took a rest with an injury to realise that nothing else mattered. He picked himself up, made minor adjustments to his technique, and as he admits in his book, he grew up. Returning to the Test arena for the winter tour to South Africa in 2015/16, the impetuousness of his earlier career had been replaced by a surer approach. When he scored his debut Test century at Cape Town, a full four years after he’d failed to convert on 95, although it was 150 not out, it was playing back-up man to Ben Stokes’s breathtaking 258.
‘You’re working in partnership, and you’ve got to know when to go down the gears and support, you can’t just attack for six hours straight,’ he says. ‘You’ve got to adapt to different periods of play, and allow yourself quieter spells.’
This, perhaps, is the true art of compromise in Test cricket, though Bairstow raises another: ‘The compromise of missing family events when you’re away for five months is tough – I keep on missing the weddings of my best friends. Those are not just light things that you easily step away from, but that’s when you’ve just got to muck in. You can’t be bitching and moaning, that’s when craters form within teams.’
Once an impulsive bludgeoner of the ball, Bairstow is now a cool customer – one so at ease under pressure, he’s given to taking little naps when padded up and waiting to head out to bat at six or seven. While he’s got no time for the stats and micro-analysis that are the compulsive obsession of the cricketing world – ‘they’re there for those who want to read them, but it’s not something I want to look at – I’m a doer’ – he’s now racked up more than 50 caps and is starting to make an impact on the record books. He currently sits just outside the top 30 in a list of most Test dismissals by wicketkeepers. It’ll be no surprise that when he hangs up his gloves, he’ll right up there with the very best.
He does, however, maintain a bucket list. After centuries at Lord’s, Headingley and in the Ashes, what remains? ‘I want to score the most hundreds as a wicketkeeper for England, and I want to play 100 test matches,’ he says.
On current form, he’ll walk it.