Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The moment to shine

Tuesday, 28 July 2015
Sometimes you have those players who you feel slightly over-protective towards. These players are often from the county you support, or just players you've really taken to - be it their style of play or their attitude to the game, their character. For me one of those players is Jonny Bairstow, making a return to England's test side this week ahead of his Yorkshire team-mate Gary Ballance.

Bairstow for Yorkshire this year has been simply brilliant. Five centuries, four fifties, an average over 100, and a strike rate around 80 have made him the standout batsman in the first division, and the man Yorkshire have relied upon in their campaign to retain their County Championship title. When called upon by England for the final ODI against New Zealand, he delivered in style, his 83* taking England from a hopeless position at 45/5 to the winners of the match and the series. With England's batting lineup so often finding itself in perilous positions, there can be few surprises that a change was called for, and that Bairstow was the man to get the call. He couldn't do much more to earn another chance.

Yet Bairstow's test and wider international career has, so far, been a frustrating one. Flashes of brilliance - a match-winning 41* on ODI debut, a 95 against South Africa at Lord's - have been just flashes, with Bairstow dipping in and out of the side. Perennially a squad member, perhaps, but not doing enough to hold down a regular place in the side. It's that status of being a squad member that has been so frustrating to watch when such a fan of his. The Champions Trophy in 2013 sticks particularly in the mind: after some good performances with the bat during the preceding tests against New Zealand, it was then around a month with no action before the Ashes series. Surely a young player would be better served playing regular cricket than carrying around the drinks, never making the team? He's not the only player it's happened to, and it won't be the last, but there was a lingering frustration at his subsequent dropping from the team before the end of the series. Bairstow returned during the whitewash, but with the series already gone, there was very little to be gained for anyone coming into the team in such a situation.

Of course, it can't all be a blame game. Though his career has at times been stop-start, he hasn't made the most of his chances when he's had them. Just four half centuries in fourteen games are the obvious proof. When he did have his longest run in the side in 2013, whilst often getting himself in, he passed the fifty mark just twice - and then not going past 70. The technique can be questionable too - first struggling against the short ball, and after overcoming that having difficulties facing those full and straight, not playing with a straight bat when he needs to. It'll never be textbook, a technique that opponents will be able to pick holes in. Yet cricket is a game of character just as much, and when Bairstow is at his best he plays with self belief - and that's something he should have in abundance with his season so far. He's being given another chance to crack test cricket, and England will sure need him to.

Bairstow's not the only man in the side with something to prove. It's an odd thing to be saying about someone who has played 112 test matches and scored 22 centuries, and yet it's very often said about Ian Bell. Bell, a senior figure in the team, supposed to fill the void left by Pietersen, but whose average has only been scraping 30 over the past two years. Bell, a man expected to be at ease at the number three spot but still averages just under 40 in the position. A man equal parts beautiful and frustrating to watch. With Ballance out, Bell is moving up to number three again. It's a spot he should have the talent and the game to succeed in - a more positive player from the outset than Ballance, who can score quickly once settled, but can also get bogged down. But Bell never has quite made it his own. There might be few harder times to take a shift in the order than when out of form and the team has just taken a crushing defeat, but Bell has to take this moment and make his impact felt. His career may even depend upon it.

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