Jonny Bairstow is an engaging cricketer who I know well from my time at Yorkshire. It was simply his quirky sense of humour that led to the clash of heads with Cameron Bancroft four weeks ago and resulted in a great Ashes Test win for Australia ending with a storm in a teacup.
World cricket is a year-round circuit during which players need to unwind over a few beers. Stories are swapped, tactics discussed and jokes are exchanged between opponents. In this instance, before Bancroft was even picked for Australia, a bit of banter at a bar turned somehow into a story that has dominated the news agenda.
Obviously this particular late-night incident in Perth, on what was their first night on tour, is not ideal for England, given everything that has gone in the recent past with Ben Stokes. It’s another unnecessary distraction they could have done without but it will blow over soon.
Australia, after three days of tight and tense cricket in which they handed out a bit of a towelling to England, did try to use the situation to their advantage a bit by sledging Jonny about it while he was batting. But getting under the skin of an opponent is nothing new.
Mental disintegration, as Steve Waugh used to call it, is about throwing a player off his game. There is of course a line you do not cross but if you can get a batsman’s mind not 100% focused on what is his primary job – watching and reacting to the ball coming down at them – then it’s fair game for me and will continue in the sport.
Steve Smith, the Australian captain, believes it worked at the Gabba when Jonny picked out the man at fly slip/third man in the second innings on 42. Only he will know if there was anything else on his mind at the time. Jonny can be a fiery character but he’s also an experienced Test cricketer now, so it should have been water off a duck’s back.
There is a feeling in Australian cricket that, for all Alastair Cook’s longevity and runs, Bairstow is England’s second-best batsman right now and Smith’s side are surprised that he is batting as low as No7. Was his attempt to guide the ball over the slips – a shot he plays very well – a lack of confidence in the tail-enders? I’m not so sure. It was just a poor decision.
The Australian way is to trust your team-mate at the other end no matter where they come in – look at how Smith played with Pat Cummins to turn their first innings around – and not obsess with trying to farm the strike or force quick runs that aren’t there.
This is not to say England aren’t vulnerable here and their tail has to find a way to combat Mitchell Starc and Cummins because they looked like rabbits in the headlights. Rightly so because that was some hostile stuff. And they will need to strap in for the rest of the series: the pitches are only going to get quicker than that out-of-character Gabba surface.
I was on the outfield at the end of the Test and heard Trevor Bayliss, the England coach, say bowlers are ultimately there to bowl and you cannot obsess too much about their batting. Too right. And Australia’s four are combining pretty well currently. Much is made of what Nathan Lyon does for the big hairy quicks but this is a two-way street; their hostility also brings him opportunities, too.
Why Lyon is so superior to Moeen Ali here is because he has not just learned how to survive on Australian pitches but thrive. He gets a lot more overspin on the ball and varies his pace nicely. Moeen, who hasn’t bowled much here before, puts more side spin on the ball. But we should note that he was also rusty from a side injury in the warm-ups and his cut finger will be a concern.
England, it must be said, came up against one of the great Ashes hundreds from Smith and had no answers. Much is made of his unorthodox technique but this is a word that is starting to finally be stripped out of Australian coaching right now. Why? Because, put quite simply, the perfect technique is the one that works for you.
It is about hitting the ball where the fielders aren’t and Smith has become an absolute master at this. Forget the manual that talks of high elbows and stroking the ball through mid on and mid off. The art of batsmanship is about individual craft and, ultimately, runs. There is another player who didn’t fit the mould (and had a similar backlift towards slip) and he averaged 99.94 in Test cricket. A coincidence? I don’t believe in them.
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