The trials and tribulations of Jonny Bairstow, England’s great survivor

Jonny Bairstow has scored 12 centuries in his 99 Test matches (Photos by Getty)
Jonny Bairstow has scored 12 centuries in his 99 Test matches (Photos by Getty)

Jonny Bairstow stands on the brink of playing his 100th Test match for England, a feat which is right for celebration, after what has been a tumultuous career.

Few players join the exclusive club, and even fewer have faced as many trials and tribulations as Bairstow in their journey to that point. In Dharamshala on Thursday, the 34-year-old will be awarded his 100th cap in front of a group of travelling family and friends under the snowcapped Himalayas, becoming only the 17th Englishman to reach the mark.

There are few settings more stunning in world cricket, but it was under the shadow of Table Mountain in Cape Town that the wicketkeeper-batter made his maiden Test century, an unbeaten 150 back in 2016.

That was the first of 12 Test centuries for England at an average of 36.42, and a strike rate of 58.68 – but those stats barely scratch the surface of his career. At times he has been England’s poster boy who could do no wrong, at others he has been left out in the cold.

Bairstow had already overcome significant obstacles to reach professional cricket. In 1998, David, Jonny’s father, took his own life at the age of 46, leaving behind three children, and his wife Janet. Bairstow has credited his mother for the way he was brought up but followed in his father’s footsteps as a wicketkeeper-batter for both Yorkshire and England.

Jonny Bairstow scored his maiden Test century at Cape Town in 2016 (Getty Images)
Jonny Bairstow scored his maiden Test century at Cape Town in 2016 (Getty Images)

But his England career was not in itself straightforward, and he has been forced to justify his presence in the team time and again since making his debut against the West Indies at Lords in May 2012. The indecision by the selectors over his role in the team started early.

In 2014, Jos Buttler was handed the gloves and Bairstow was forced to spend a lengthy time on the outside of the national side looking inwards, between the ill-fated Ashes series defeat the preceding winter and his return in July 2015. It was the first of many times there would be a debate as to whether he should be a specialist batter, or stand behind the wicket.

Bairstow had to wait until his 22nd Test for his maiden century at Cape Town. He had come agonisingly close with 95 against South Africa at Lord’s in 2012, but his return to the side in 2015 prompted his first outstanding year for the national side, with both the gloves and bat.

After taking his helmet off and holding his bat aloft, Bairstow said afterwards of his first Test hundred: “I was thinking of my dad, my grandfather, who passed away last year, and my family – that was for those guys.”

In 2016, Bairstow struck more Test runs in a calendar year than any other wicketkeeper in history, amassing 1,470 runs in 17 Test matches at an average of 58.80, and affecting 70 dismissals behind the stumps, too.

Jonny Bairstow fought his way back into the side before scoring a century at Colombo (Getty Images)
Jonny Bairstow fought his way back into the side before scoring a century at Colombo (Getty Images)

Although he did not quite reach the same heights, the vein of form continued until 2018, when an ankle injury saw the gloves handed to Ben Foakes, bringing an end to Bairstow’s lengthy run in the side. He forced his way back into the team for the final Test, scoring 110 in Colombo, capped off with a roaring celebration.

In 2019 and into the Covid-hit 2020, national selector Ed Smith left Bairstow out of the Test squad for the tour of India, and again he was asked to fulfil the role of specialist batter when he did return.

The coming of Bazball sparked a second golden year. He scored six Test centuries in 2022, four of which came in just five innings. During that summer, he developed into the standard bearer for Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes’s brand of cricket, leading England’s successful chase of 160 in the final session to claim victory at Trent Bridge, and he flourished under the new leadership.

But a freak incident on a golf course near Harrogate led to a nine-month absence. Bairstow broke bones and damaged ligaments in his foot, and he later opened up about fears he might not be able to walk again. During his absence, Harry Brook stepped into the vacant role in the middle of the English order and cemented his place in the side, and in 2023 there was only one place open for Bairstow, with the gloves, and he took it.

His keeping during the Ashes was far from perfect, but his spirit shone through. Although one can criticise why he stepped out of his crease, allowing Alex Carey to take the bails off in a controversial stumping at Lord’s that had implications far beyond the cricket sphere and was weighed in on by both nations’ prime ministers, it sparked his form into life.

He scored an unbeaten 99 at Old Trafford, marshalling the lower order, and sparking off another heated press conference, where he said: “Everyone thinks I play better when people have a go at me, and it gets a bit tiresome to be honest with you. I’ve played a lot of cricket now, and to keep being told, ‘you’re rubbish’... well if I was that rubbish, I wouldn’t have played 94 games. I want to go out and enjoy – to entertain.”

His form in India has not met his previous standards, averaging 21 without scoring more than 40, leading to questions from some in the sport as to whether his 100th will be his last. But Bairstow has proven time and again that he performs in the face of adversity – and he has had more than his fair share of that.