By Chris Stocks
England coach Trevor Bayliss has indicated Jonny Bairstow’s future as a Test cricketer may be as a specialist batsman following the finger injury that makes it almost certain he will not keep wicket in next week’s fourth Test against India.
Bairstow has been included in the squad for Southampton despite fracturing the middle finger on his left hand while taking a regulation catch during England’s defeat in the third Test at Trent Bridge this week.
However, it is understood if he does play at the Ageas Bowl it will be as a batsman only, with Jos Buttler, England’s white-ball keeper, set to take the gloves when the fourth Test starts on Thursday.
Asked about Bairstow’s prospects of recovery, Bayliss said: “We’ve got to check with the medical guys in the next few days. They’re suggesting he may not be able to keep but might be able to bat. We’ll have to see how it responds.
“If that gives someone else another opportunity – it’s like any injury, if someone comes in and does well, then you have a decision to make.”
Bairstow has been England’s second-best Test batsman since the start of 2016, averaging 44.51 with five tons.
Only captain Joe Root, 48.14 over the same period, has a better record and there is a school of thought that taking the gloves away from Bairstow and allowing him to concentrate solely on batting would fully unlock his potential.
It would also shore up England’s fragile top order with Bairstow at No.4.
It’s a debate Bayliss is well aware of but the Australian admits it will be a battle convincing Bairstow of its merits given he takes so much pride in how he has improved his keeping since taking over the role from Buttler in late 2015.
“Yes, that’ll be the hard thing, trying to convince Jonny,” said Bayliss. “That will be a decision taken from the team point of view. He is a world-class batter, we know that, one of the difficult things might be convincing Jonny of that.
“He’s improved his keeping over the last couple of years from where he was, say, in South Africa [2015-16]. He’s aware of that. He’s done some hard work. Jos will have to do some hard work too. He’s been keeping a lot in one-day cricket but keeping 100 overs-a-day can be difficult, day after day, Test after Test. There are other options as well.”
In the long-term, those other options include Surrey’s Ben Foakes, England’s reserve Test keeper during last winter’s tours of Australia and New Zealand.
For now, though, Buttler, who deputised at Trent Bridge after Bairstow’s injury, has an opportunity to stake a long-term claim for the gloves.
“If that was the way we went [long term], it would certainly be a deep conversation with someone like Jonny,” said Bayliss. “He’s a reasonable bloke. If that’s the way we wanted to go – in the long run, he wants to play Test cricket. We know he wants to keep but there’d be a lot of explaining and chatting.”
On the danger that taking the gloves from Bairstow could adversely affect his batting, Bayliss replied: “That might be his fear, it’s certainly not our fear.”
Releasing Bairstow from the shackles of keeping could also raise the possibility of him opening in Tests given England’s current struggles with Alastair Cook and Keaton Jennings.
The 28-year-old has been a revelation since moving to the top of the ODI order last summer, scoring six centuries and averaging 59.77. But would such a move work in Test cricket?
“It’s a bit different to opening in one-day cricket where wickets are nice and flat,” said Bayliss. “He can hit through the ball. Four or five suits him down to the ground [in Tests].”
For now, England are stuck with Jennings at the top of the order after the Lancashire man was reprieved for Southampton despite averaging just 20.50 since returning for the final Test against Pakistan at Headingley in June.
The 26-year-old’s robotic technique makes him look awkward at the best of times but has there been discernible change or improvement in his method since he was dropped last summer?
“When he was with the Lions in Australia last year, it was about trying to get a little more flow to his batting,” said Bayliss. “He is a very upright player so he is probably never going to be one of those guys who gets well down over the front knee and sniffs the ball.
“It was about a little more rhythm. He’s been working on his backlift to get a little more rhythm and flow. It’s no easy task batting against these guys in these conditions which have been difficult. But that’s the job of an opening bat.”
Then there is Ollie Pope, the 20-year-old who has yet to make a major contribution in two Tests at the No,4 position since being handed his debut at Lord’s earlier this month.
“He’s batted no higher than six for Surrey so it was a big ask to come into international cricket and bat four,” said Bayliss. “But the short times he’s been at the crease indicated that he might be a good international cricketer.
“We would have probably liked to have started him off a bit lower down but the hole was at four. Obviously, Jonny is an option there as well which might allow Ollie to drop a little lower. These are all things we’ve discussed.”
The fact Bayliss again mentioned Bairstow suggests the finger injury that looks like facilitating his transition into a specialist batsman might be the lucky break that could inadvertently help solve England’s batting woes.
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