Exactly how many Tests will Jonny Bairstow survive as England’s number three?

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Jonny Bairstow (via Sky Sports)

It’s time for England’s next Test series, which means it’s time to think about exactly which wrong side England will pick.

Most people seem to agree that Jonny Bairstow will be batting at three. This is probably correct. It is however a selection decision that is wrong for him, wrong for the batsmen beneath him and wrong for England’s bowling attack too.

The background

England haven’t had a regular number three for bloody ages. In Sri Lanka, they got to a point where they were pretty much just randomly shuffling the batting order every innings.

In the third Test, Jonny Bairstow made a hundred batting at three and celebrated like a mental person. At this point the music stopped and everybody froze in the batting position they had at that moment.

The ramifications

While the rejoicing at Bairstow’s hundred was fulsome and justified, the rejoicing at the prospect of a problem solved was far more half-hearted.

Three main reasons:

  1. No-one was really pushing for Bairstow to be number three in the first place – it was just his turn to have a go.
  2. He doesn’t especially want the job. He wants to be wicketkeeper and not bat at number three.
  3. At heart, it just wasn’t all that persuasive an innings. According to CricViz, he only faced 13 balls of pace and pace is generally what number three batsmen have to contend with.

To an extent all of this is neither here nor there. As a near-irrelevance of a number three innings, it didn’t really prove much one way or another.

What’s far more of a problem is that England dropped a bowler to accommodate Bairstow in that match.

England need six bowlers

We keep saying this. It sounds crazy, but we’re maybe 70 per cent sure that it’s true. To reliably bowl the opposition out cheaply, England seem to need six bowlers and unless they find a truly fast bowler, they almost certainly need one of those six bowlers to be Adil Rashid.

If you don’t believe us on this, here’s a lengthy explanation.

The gist is that England have had an advantage over other sides because they’ve been able to deploy an appropriate bowler in every situation. While ideally you’d cover all bases with fewer than six bowlers, England unfortunately need six. The huge and unusual advantage they have is that with so many all-rounders, six bowlers is actually an option that’s open to them.

So who should bat at three?

First of all: it doesn’t hugely matter. While it’s looked upon as being an absolute must-have for any successful Test side, the truth is that having a reliable number three is secondary to having a bowler for every situation.

Think of it this way: Your own number three is one batsman; the opposition number three is one batsman. The guy who cuts short what would have been a big opposition partnership does as much for your cause as a guy who may or may not score more runs than his replacement (Bairstow compared to a different number three).

You can afford to pick a partnership-breaker. Sri Lanka were 173-1 in reply to England’s 336 in the third Test in November. Adil Rashid then dismissed both of the set batsmen. Even if he hadn’t taken another wicket or scored another run, he’d have done as much for England as Bairstow did with his first innings hundred.

(Quick sidebar: Bairstow was player of the match. He made 125 runs and took no catches. Rashid made 45 runs for once out, took five wickets and ran someone out.)

Someone has to bat at three

And if you want to retain six bowlers, it has to be someone who was already in the side.

The stats say that Ben Stokes is far stronger against pace than against spin and better at dealing with the moving ball early on than any of England’s other batsmen. Far from being a lower order bully, he actually performs better the earlier he comes in.

We don’t actually have any strong desire to see Ben Stokes promoted to three, but based on the evidence he seems a better fit than Bairstow and this would also allow the selection of six bowlers. Throw in the fact that Bairstow doesn’t really seem to want to do the job and Stokes seems a slightly better solution to us.

What happens next?

Bairstow’s in now and he’s made a hundred. Even if it was a near-irrelevant hundred from a batting-at-number-three perspective, the selectors have to ‘give him a run’ so that we’ll all be far more understanding when he very probably fails.

How many matches will this take? We reckon three – the three against the West Indies – which would mean a new number three (almost certainly not Stokes) for the first Ireland Test next summer, ahead of the Ashes.


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  1. I am betting on Bairstow to come good in West Indies

    that sets him upvbeautifully to fail against Starc, Cummins &vJhye Richardson in English conditions in the home ashes

    1. The other thing we were thinking about when we were writing this was that time Ravi Bopara made three hundreds on the bounce against the Windies ahead of an Ashes series.

      For the second and third of those, he was batting at three.

  2. I’m a huge fan for Bairstow, but the second Ashes Test is my gut feeling and he will be dropped for a specialist three. The attempt by benefit Bairstow’s red ball game as the improvement he would need to make for three would also benefit him at five if he is to fight for last slot in the future.

    The ODI side may be better off without this experiment as the last thing that team needs is Bairstow taking out of his attacking mindset.

    The England set-up do make me laugh remember last summer when Bairstow couldn’t bat six and keep because that was Stokes slot and now BS is fine to bat five so Buttler can play as a specialist six.

  3. There’s also the apparent fact that Broad’s coming good and has got a lot of wickets in the past, and therefore two of those five bowlers will be Broad and Anderson.

    There’s talk that he’s regained some pace, and if he can hit 140 constantly or do some bouncy stuff then that’s all good. If, as I’m expecting, he reverts to basically Jimmy without the boundary-drying, then we risk reverting to an England attack that looks a bit fast-medium + Moe.

  4. The conclusion of this piece strongly infers that there is no test cricket for England between the West Indies series and the Ashes.

    But the MCC at Lord’s (The Home Of Cricket) have taken rather a lot of money out of my bank account recently, purportedly for a test match between England and Ireland.

    So there are two possibilities; either the MCC has defrauded me or King Cricket has made an itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny mistake in his conclusion. I need to decide which.

    I think I’ll go to Lord’s (The Home Of Cricket) tomorrow and confront them with the situation.

    1. Duly corrected, Ged. And we will pay back our correction debt by pointing out that you mean ‘imply’ not ‘infer’. Only you, the reader, can do the inferring.

      1. It’s all right for you, isn’t it, KC? – you can correct your verbal misdemeanours, while the rest of us have to live with our errors for all eternity.

        I suppose it’s infer a penny, infer a pound if we choose to comment on this site.

  5. England seem to be following my work mantra, namely “Delay making a decision for as long as you can, and the decision will probably work itself out”.

    Bairstow succeeds – keep riding the wave for as long as you can
    Bairstow fails, everyone else does OK – can drop Bairstow to back up wicketkeeper and go back to picking random county number 3s
    Bairstow middling, Foakes fails – drop Foakes, Bairstow to 6 or 7 with the gloves, county number 3 in
    Bairstow fails, Foakes fails – ditto

    Of course, Englands problem is that everyone (including Root these days) is the very definition of middling. They seem to just score 300 with the top 9 all averaging 32. Bairstow, Stokes, Buttler, Foakes, Moeen, Woakes, Curran and even Rashid could all bat at 7 without anyone really batting an eyelid. The mediocrity means that picking out any of them to be dropped seems harsh.

    Bairstow is not a number 3, and I have no doubt will either fail this series or set himself up to fail next summer. I’m just not sure anyone else is any better. Maybe England should pad up a literal sacrificial lamb to bat 3.

  6. If we had a solid established opening pair then the number 3 wouldn’t have to see off the new ball as opposed to coming in at 16-1 in the 5th over.

  7. Assuming England stick with their policy of 4 bowlers plus 2 all rounders (or 3 bowlers plus 3 all rounders if Rashid plays), with Foakes at 7, then Bairstow at 3 is likely as good as it will ever get for England’s batting, at least in the foreseeable future.

    I’d pick Johnny ahead of Jos Buttler, and he’s better at 3 than any option with the possible exception of Root (and Root at 4 is still the best thing for the team in the long run).

  8. I think it’s fair to say that Johnny Root scored 0 runs today, while Stuart Broad conceded 0 runs.

    No context for the above information is required

  9. Where do Windies keep all their Jasons?

    In a Jason Holder!

    *reminds KCdom of his presence for remainder of week before exiting to rapturous applause*

  10. I know you don’t do requests, KC, but surely BedBugGate deserves the treatment…

    …I mean, it should be a rich source of biting satire.

    And as I write Mr Bairstow bites the dust for the first time this series.

  11. My wife and daughter don’t do cricket, and I forgot all about play having started until we got back from the shops. So I check the score…

    … 48/4?! Root out for 4?!? WTF, etc … I open a new tab and load kingcricket up, thinking of expressing the view that clearly Rooooot was intimidated by having to face the newly-crowned LMoG, and literally by the time the page is open, the score is 48/6 and there no longer seems to be any point. I decide to comment anyway, and before I can type it out, /6 has become /7.

    I know this is England, and shitty performance in the first innings of a series is a hallowed tradition and all that, but… why are we making Roach and Holder look like Roberts and Holding..? Perhaps we just want to lay a platform for another Curran-and-Foakes rescue mission eh

    [Nope, Foakes just nicked off to Joseph. Unfuckingbelievable]

    1. A Test innings that lasts as long as a comment on King Cricket is not a formidable Test innings.

  12. In these troubled times…

    …with so many aspects of my world seemingly being turned upside down…

    …it is strangely reassuring to go through those all too familiar emotions of most of my life…

    …starting work early and looking forward to getting away from work early so I could follow much of the day’s play in a Caribbean test match…

    …only to witness (in the old days aurally only of course) England falling to pieces at the hands of a quartet of West Indian quicks.

    Whither Stuart Broad? Oh dear.

  13. I blame all of this on optimism. England haven’t won a series in the Caribbean in a very long time, but the optimists expected an easy victory for the tourists.

    If following cricket has taught us anything, it’s that optimism is for losers.

  14. I don’t think it matters what the batting order is — the simple answer is this trend of England getting mugged by raw *pace*.

    It was a problem in India in 2016, the last two Ashes series in Australia, even in the India series last year and now here.

    They don’t face enough quick bowling in domestic cricket or in the nets — so no wonder the batting looks so fraught against it.

    1. What speed was Roach clocked at in that spell. I remember last time he was in Australia he looked a little bit fast medium…

      1. It was more pace from Gabriel than Roach. But even looking at Roach I feel he hits the bat harder and he’s a bit more hit-the-deck than say Anderson or Broad. English conditions reward kiss-the-pitch seamers who swing the ball, rather than bowlers who can bang it into the pitch hard and get the ball to behave awkwardly off a length. Release speed doesn’t tell you the full story.

      2. The radio commentators (who included Gough and Harmison) kept going on about “four genuine quicks” and how encouraging it was to see that. So the perception is that they were too fast for England, at least, regardless of what the speed-gun might say…

        … of course, as has been pointed out already, English batsmen don’t face much genuine pace back home so “too fast for them” isn’t necessarily saying that much. (Harmison himself was probably our last genune quick, or am I forgetting somebody..?)

        It remains the case that there are fast bowlers around the world, however, even if not in the County Championship. And most of these batsmen will have faced at least some of those… that collapse can’t *just* be blamed on the shock of unfamiliarity, surely? (Let’s see whether they can reach three figures in the second innings..)

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