Time to unleash the Jonny

Two nil down and facing the prospect of a second successive away whitewash, whilst once again being both out batted and out bowled (save for James Anderson) by Australia, it’s clear that something needs to change for England in the Ashes.

Given the injuries to Toby Roland-Jones, Steven Finn and Mark Wood, the travails of England’s bowling arguably couldn’t be helped but England’s batting problems are arguably harder to explain away beyond the simple point that the quality doesn’t exist. When only four of your batting picks average 40+ in first class cricket (and you clearly don’t trust one of them in Gary Ballance), you can’t expect the personnel to average much more in Test Cricket and thus put up sufficient scores to win games. Which then brings us to the question that England ought to be asking of themselves as they seek to get back into this series: Do we need to pick Bairstow purely as a batsman?

The reality is that for anyone who has followed County Cricket over the last four years, Bairstow is a giant in terms of domestic batsmen. His returns for Yorkshire dwarf anyone else in the County game including some hugely big names. Over the last three years his form has been nigh on ridiculous whenever he’s stepped back into the County ranks, topping the averages with an average of 82 and a century percentage of 35% (plus a healthy conversion rate). The below table highlights the leading run scorers over the last three years in County Cricket (minimum innings 20) and Bairstow averages over 15 more per innings than his closest rival.

Batsmen (Min 20 inns) Inns Runs Ave SR 50s 100s Conv Cent%
JM Bairstow 20 1649 82.45 0.79 5 7 1.40 35.00%
AG Prince 22 1478 67.18 0.68 5 5 1.00 22.73%
AN Cook 22 1445 65.68 0.53 4 6 1.50 27.27%
KC Sangakkara 54 3400 62.96 0.67 10 14 1.40 25.93%
SA Northeast 61 3522 57.74 0.64 16 9 0.56 14.75%
RN ten Doeschate 49 2648 54.04 0.67 17 5 0.29 10.20%
AC Voges 24 1241 51.71 0.53 8 2 0.25 8.33%
BM Duckett 59 2988 50.64 0.77 10 11 1.10 18.64%
JWA Taylor 20 991 49.55 0.57 5 2 0.40 10.00%
LS Livingstone 33 1618 49.03 0.58 9 4 0.44 12.12%
S van Zyl 21 1023 48.71 0.52 4 2 0.50 9.52%
AD Hales 30 1459 48.63 0.66 4 4 1.00 13.33%
AN Petersen 43 1995 46.40 0.62 7 6 0.86 13.95%
MJ Cosgrove 76 3484 45.84 0.64 15 11 0.73 14.47%
RJ Burns 70 3204 45.77 0.51 20 5 0.25 7.14%
WL Madsen 65 2974 45.75 0.55 14 9 0.64 13.85%
T Westley 56 2560 45.71 0.54 13 6 0.46 10.71%
CDJ Dent 71 3199 45.06 0.50 20 8 0.40 11.27%
JL Denly 65 2921 44.94 0.55 16 7 0.44 10.77%
GJ Bailey 20 894 44.70 0.59 5 3 0.60 15.00%

He also had one of the great County seasons in recent years in 2015 (though second only to Sangakkara’s epic 2017 in terms of recent efforts) as the below table of top 10 highest County season averages (min 8 matches) indicates:

Player Mat Runs Ave Year
KC Sangakkara 10 1491 106.5 2017
MR Ramprakash 14 2211 105.28 2006
MR Ramprakash 15 2026 101.3 2007
NRD Compton 11 1191 99.25 2012
NV Knight 10 1520 95 2002
DJ Hussey 12 1219 93.76 2007
JM Bairstow 9 1108 92.33 2015
SG Law 16 1820 91 2003
MR Ramprakash 11 1350 90 2009
MEK Hussey 14 1697 89.31 2003

And of the active England eligible players (if we ignore the bloke the ECB ask us to) he is the only one with a 50+ average in County Cricket (min 20 innings).

Batsmen (min 20 inns) Sum of Runs Ave
KP Pietersen 5031 59.89
JM Bairstow 5937 51.63
LS Livingstone 1618 49.03
ME Trescothick 13729 48.51
AN Cook 6465 47.54
GS Ballance 5396 47.33
JE Root 2679 47.00
NLJ Browne 3831 44.03
BM Duckett 3748 43.58
JM Clarke 2656 43.54
RJ Burns 5711 42.30
DW Lawrence 2072 42.29
IR Bell 8174 42.13
RS Bopara 8844 41.52
NRT Gubbins 2317 41.38
JC Hildreth 13344 41.19
H Hameed 1968 41.00
CT Steel 899 40.86
WL Madsen 8602 40.58
NRD Compton 9186 40.47

So, as we can see. of all the options available to England in terms of batsman to bring in, no-one even comes close to matching Bairstow in terms of output. If this scenario feels familiar, it’s probably because it mirrors the same such debates England were having in the mid 90’s about Alec Stewart and the wicket-keeper position.

Which then brings us on to what are the downsides?

Firstly Bairstow himself doesn’t want to do it and is committed to keeping for England, which is understandable given his keeping improvements over the last two years and the obvious kick he gets from being the focal point in this team. Yet there is a point where England management need to intervene and point out that to truly fulfil his potential greatness as a batsman and help England where their need is greatest, Bairstow ought to drop the gloves. Few wicket-keeper batsmen thrive in Test cricket if their top order cannot post scores (see Quinton De Kock for South Africa this summer gone). England need Bairstow the batsman to make this happen. Plus, unlike for England in the 90s, England have a mean batsman in Ben Foakes as their backup keeper. He may potentially be the best keeper in the world, but he also averages 40+ himself over the last three years in County Cricket.

Secondly, Bairstow’s Test form as a batsman alone is patchy. Which is a fair point

Grouping Span Mat Runs HS Bat Av 100 Wkts BBI Bowl Av 5 Ct St
Keeper 2013-2017 30 2179 167* 44.46 3 113 7
Not Keeper 2012-2015 17 753 95 28.96 0 10 0

Yet Jason Gillespie in 2015 remarked that a key part of his form turnaround was based on allowing Bairstow to dictate his technique and avoiding confusion in his approach.

In reality, given these considerations, the likeliest option available is a move up the order to 5 enabling Bairstow to keep and bat higher up the order (as he does very well for Yorkshire). Yet few keepers in Test history have combined excellent top to middle order batting, particularly in a struggling team, which suggests Bairstow could always be slightly compromised by two roles.

WKTKEEPER

Ultimately given the situation in the series, although there are risks and England will be reluctant to disrupt their fielding and batting by changing their keeper halfway through an Ashes series, desperate times call for desperate measures. With quality batsmen lacking, England should be thinking hard about giving one of their best ones  every chance to shine.

Postscript – Mark Butcher eloquently states the case for this move here. It’s worth a listen. 

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