England look to empower Bairstow the batsman sans 'keeping duties
It is a debate that has played out on social media and in meeting rooms at the England and Wales Cricket Board over the last 12 months. Now, head coach Trevor Bayliss has stated he is in favour of Jonny Bairstow moving up the order to number four and relinquishing the gloves long-term for the team's cause.
England's top-order woes continued in the third Test, collapsing in a heap and losing all 10 wickets in a session when bowled out for 161 in their first innings to all but hand India victory. And though Bairstow, now one of England's senior batsman, has enjoyed success further down the order, the belief is that the team must make better use of his talent by giving him a prime spot in the line-up.
The reluctance to promote him to four comes solely from his wicketkeeping responsibilities. The long-held theory in cricket is that the demands of standing behind the stumps all day necessitates rest in the next innings. However, England now find themselves with an unexpected opportunity to pull the chord on this plan.
A fractured finger received by Bairstow in India's second innings meant he had to leave the field with Jos Buttler, a specialist number seven up until that moment, taking over behind the stumps. Buttler, England's limited-overs 'keeper, settled immediately into the role and followed it up with a maiden Test hundred on day four.
If Bairstow is passed fit for the fourth Test in Southampton, which begins on August 30, he will bat four. James Vince, the Hampshire batsman of 13 Tests, has been called up as cover. Buttler will continue with the gloves regardless. While Bayliss accepts Bairstow will be reluctant to step away from a role in which he improved at immeasurably, the move will come with the team in mind, not the individual.
"That'll be the hard thing, trying to convince Jonny," said Bayliss. "That will be a decision that is 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.
"I think he has improved his 'keeping over the last couple of years from where he was say when we were in South Africa. He's aware of that. He's done some hard work. Jos will have to do some hard work as well. 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 out there as well."
This Bairstow conundrum is one that divides opinion and the numbers are such that both sides of this divide have decent ammunition.
When in possession of the gloves, Bairstow averages 42.33. Without them, that falls dramatically to 28.96. Then again, it cannot be ignored that his period as a batsman only came between 2012 to 2015, when a more technically flawed iteration was getting to grips with Test cricket. The player who picked up all five of his Test hundreds was the new and improved Johnny 2.0 who came back into the side in 2016 and has since never looked back.
There is also the quirk that all of Bairstow's 11 international hundreds have been scored without the burden of keeping: those five against the red ball have all been in the first innings of a Test. Again, that is not so peculiar: batting gets harder as a match goes on.
Another thing to consider will be Bairstow's state of mind. He is a stubborn professional who may be unsettled by having something taken away from him. He may see it as a slight - that he is incapable of excelling at both. In turn, his batting could slip. Bayliss does not agree - "that might be his fear, it's certainly not our fear - but this is where the Australia earns his corn, which he accepts.
"It would certainly be a deep conversation with someone like that. Jonny'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 would be a lot of explaining and chatting."
The move would also allow Ollie Pope to move down the order. The 20-year-old has batted at four in his first two Tests despite having never done so for his county, Surrey. In fact, he had not batted before the 23rd over in first class cricket before his Test debut, when he came in during the ninth over when England were 32 for 2.
A poor shot in England's second innings - flashing at a ball that should have been left well alone to fall for 16 - spoke of a player who has operated mostly in the middle order. Bayliss has been impressed by what he's seen of Pope in close quarters but appreciates a spot lower down will make him more at home.
"He is a young guy with a good head on his shoulders and I think he is going to give himself every opportunity to be a good international cricketer. A young guy's dismissal in the second innings - whether you call it a rush of blood or whatever - I think over a period of time he has shown enough at practice and in his demeanour and in his intelligence talking about the game that I'm quite sure he will tighten up his technique.
"He's batted no higher than six for Surrey so it was a big ask to come into international cricket and bat four but the short times he's been at the crease that he might be a good international cricketer. We would have probably liked to have started him off down a bit lower but the hole was at No.4. Obviously, Jonny is an option there as well which might allow Ollie to drop a little lower. These are all things we've discussed."