Jonny Bairstow indispensable to England after so long as spare part | England v India 2021

The sound is totally unique. How can this be? A regulation cricket bat hitting a regulation cricket ball: logic tells us that this should sound the same whoever is swinging it. And yet intuition tells us otherwise.

Kevin Pietersen’s shots sounded like the crack of a rifle. Matthew Hayden’s sounded like an axe slicing through a tree. The bat of AB de Villiers, meanwhile, always made a delightful pock noise, however violently he was hitting it, as if he was simply helping the ball to wherever it was meant to go.

When Jonny Bairstow hits the ball exactly the way he wants to hit it, it sounds like music. Like a perfect chord or a beat of the cleanest drum you’ve ever heard. The feet anchor in the crease, the hips square off and the forearms come through in a simple, pure swing. Nothing is wasted or excessive. The sound gives away the purity of the shot long before you can see it. And the ball simply flies, and for a while it feels like it may never land.

There have been times during the last few weeks when it seems like Bairstow himself has been defying gravity. Clips off the legs race for four. Thick edges fly safely over the slips. Pull shots bisect fielders. And even as India pressed home their advantage on day three at Edgbaston, the mood in the stands remained boisterous: a home crowd still basking in the glow of the second summer of Jonny.

First the numbers, which are impressive enough: since his career-saving 113 in Sydney in January, Bairstow has made five centuries in nine Tests at an average of 68. So far this calendar year he has scored more runs than any other Test batter. None of this was inevitable. So what happened? How did we go from the pale vestige of a cricketer we glimpsed for much of 2021 to the dominant force we saw here? And – just as intriguingly – why now? Why not earlier? How has a cricketer of such abundant talent spent most of his career fighting entropy?

On a watery Sunday morning in Birmingham, we got a few clues. India were rampant, relentless, expectant in those early overs. Every ball felt like an epic. Mohammed Shami was swinging it around corners. Jasprit Bumrah was jagging the ball in both directions. With England’s hopes resting entirely on Bairstow’s partnership with Ben Stokes, Virat Kohli chose this moment to approach Bairstow and offer a few handy pointers.

Bairstow salutes the Edgbaston crowd
Bairstow is playing some of the best cricket of his career. Photograph: Alex Davidson/Getty Images

We heard this song quite a lot last summer, and normally it only ended one way. Except here, something strange happened. Bairstow sent Kohli back to slip with a condescending tap on the shoulder, returned to his crease and set about flaying India’s attack to all parts. Before his altercation with Kohli, he was on 13 from 61 balls. After it, he made 93 from 79 balls. Far from grinding England into the dirt, India had somehow managed to bring them to life.

The next couple of hours were glorious. The shots were audacious, sadistic and yet executed with a clean, cold control: the cut through point, the shovel through mid-wicket, the lofted drive simply eased over extra cover as if he were wedging the lid off a beer bottle. But there was something else here too, and we first glimpsed it on Saturday evening, when Bairstow alone looked equipped to resist India’s formidable pace attack.

This is a transformation that predates the Stokes era, and is perhaps the most striking point of difference between Bairstow and his captain: while Stokes these days comes out swinging from ball one, Bairstow has the confidence and assurance to play himself in, to get a feel for the game.

Almost alone among England’s batters, he has learned the value of positive defence: the judicious leave, the assertive block, the push for no runs that still somehow manages to convey a message of intent.

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Of course, Stokes has that club in his bag too: after all, his greatest ever innings at Headingley in 2019 began with a rearguard of two from 66 balls. But whether for reasons of tone, tactics or boredom, Stokes has ceased bothering with all that. In a way, it was somehow fitting when Bumrah got one to nip in off a length and hit Stokes painfully in the same part of the body with which he seems to do most of his thinking these days.

It feels faintly ridiculous that a player with 87 Test caps has spent most of that time feeling somehow inessential: a spare part shunted up and down the order, a man constantly on the edge of things. Partly, you sense this is simply Bairstow’s character: a natural introversion that occasionally manifests itself as aloofness, an insecurity that is too often mistaken for a chip on the shoulder. But England are finally discovering what Bairstow can do with a little love and little license. As he reached his century and raised his bat to the heavens, the Edgbaston crowd and England balcony rose to acclaim a player who – a decade into his Test career – finally feels like he belongs.

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