Why does anyone want Jonny Bairstow to give up keeping wicket? What would the England team actually gain from such a move?
It looks like Bairstow will sit out the second Test. England want to be certain that he’s 100 per cent fit before he makes his return, which very conveniently means they can postpone a decision on whether or not he’s actually part of their best team until they have a little more information to work with.
This is an important fact to note at this point: things change.
When Bairstow broke his finger in the summer, Joe Root offered him ‘no guarantees’ he’d get the gloves back. It was an odd thing to say because it instantly devalued all of the work Bairstow had put in to become a very reliable wicketkeeper.
Like most young England wicketkeepers, Bairstow started off dropping a few, so he worked really hard to correct his faults and secure his place in the side. At this point England said that all it would take for him to lose his main job was to break a finger through no fault of his own. Bairstow was very defiant about wanting to continue as wicketkeeper – probably because he felt hugely and needlessly threatened.
The argument at the time was that England had been really struggling to find anyone at all to score runs for them. There was an unproven theory that Bairstow would make more runs if he wasn’t keeping wicket.
The evidence was not especially persuasive either way. While all five of Bairstow’s Test centuries have come in the first innings when England have batted first (so pre-squatting-and-catching), he’s been a more successful batsman for England when he’s played as a keeper. (Most of the innings were years ago, but he only averages 27 without the gloves).
Maybe the misleading stat is actually the one about first innings hundreds. It seems like the more of those Bairstow makes, the more hundreds he is deemed to have failed to score after he’s kept wicket. (He averages 53 in the first innings, which is a pretty high bar to set for yourself, whether you’re keeping wicket or not.)
The situation now
As we said earlier: things change – but they also don’t. While Bairstow is again out of the side, the argument about whether or not England would benefit from him giving up the gloves has remained – even though the main reason for that argument has not.
In the summer, what England really needed above else was a solid number four. Bairstow had been keeping and batting at five, so it seemed to make sense that a sort of responsibility trade-off between keeping and batting higher up the order might allow him to move up a spot.
England’s new number four is Joe Root. One thing England don’t need any time soon is a number four.
With Ben Stokes a perfectly legit number five and England redefining “at sixes and sevens” in a highly positive way below that, the one thing the team really, desperately needs is a number three.
Is Jonny Bairstow a number three?
Jonny Bairstow probably isn’t a number three.
He’s played a couple of innings at four and they’ve been dreadful; he’s played 28 innings at five and averages 29; whereas at six and seven, he averages in the forties. Six and seven is where he’s scored all his hundreds. Bat in the air, mad eyes, bit too much adrenaline. This is where Jonny Bairstow works best.
So where does that leave us?
We are likely to get two main things if Bairstow gives up the gloves.
Here are the two things.
(1) A completely different problem
The first thing Jonny Bairstow giving up the gloves would deliver is an even-greater logjam in the middle order. If Bairstow plays and Ben Foakes also plays, England gain yet another number six or seven batsman. Someone will have to fill one of the other spots and someone else will have to not be part of the team.
In terms of problem-solving, this is just displacement. No existing problems are solved.
It might even be that despite his magnificent debut, the main beneficiary, Ben Foakes, won’t make as many runs as Bairstow the keeper or deliver a great deal more behind the stumps. (For the record, Foakes seems to be an exceptionally good wicketkeeper and we truly believe that wicketkeepers are hugely undervalued in terms of their impact. However, we simultaneously believe that Bairstow is a very good keeper who is incorrectly being viewed as a mediocre keeper because the ‘Keeper v Batsman’ argument is some sort of primal and eternal debate which is destined to play out again and again with different people taking on long-established roles regardless of their actual qualities.)
(2) Pretty much exactly the same number of runs
The second thing Jonny Bairstow giving up the gloves would achieve would most likely be ‘no particularly significant improvement in his batting whatsoever’.
All the Bairstow Test wicketkeeping stats overlook the fact that his recent poor Test batting form is probably more to do with opening in one-day internationals than it is to do with keeping wicket.
Jonny Bairstow became an extraordinarily good one-day batsman when he started opening. At pretty much the exact same moment he became a decidedly mediocre Test batsman.
Maybe that’s a coincidence, but the change seems more marked and true than the stats that supposedly indicate that he’ll make a shit-ton of runs if he stops being a wicketkeeper and plays as a specialist batsman.
What would the England team actually gain from Jonny Bairstow giving up the wicketkeeping gloves? At the minute, it looks like they’d gain a mediocre number six batsman.
And honestly we’re not sure they’ve a vacancy for one of those.