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Stumped for answers: It’s got to be over for bumbling Bairstow as he crosses the line between wicketkeeper and backstop

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6th July, 2023
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England took a big risk by selecting Jonny Bairstow as their wicketkeeper and it has backfired spectacularly. 

He dropped two catches on day one of the third Ashes Test amid an embarrassing array of fumbles and bumbles. 

Forget about the drama at Lord’s, waiting for the ball’s dead or bleating about the spirit of cricket, priority No.1 should be putting in hours of extra practice on your keeping skills.

Bairstow can get the job done in T20s and one-day international fixtures but at Test level, he’s a backstop, not a wicketkeeper. 

As is the Bazball way, gambles are taken in every aspect of cricket. 

Instead of playing it safe and retaining the superior gloveman in Ben Foakes, they brought Bairstow back as keeper for the Ashes after a brief return in county cricket and a warm-up behind the stumps in the Test against Ireland. 

England's Jonny Bairstow drops a catch from Australia's Travis Head (not pictured) during day one of the third Ashes test match at Headingley, Leeds. Picture date: Thursday July 6, 2023. (Photo by Danny Lawson/PA Images via Getty Images)

England’s Jonny Bairstow drops a catch from Australia’s Travis Head. (Photo by Danny Lawson/PA Images via Getty Images)

He has looked sluggish in his primary role after more than six months out with a broken leg from, of all things, an injury via a freak accident on the golf course. Bairstow averages 36.88 with the bat in Test cricket and his record doesn’t vary much either way if he’s keeper. Foakes is hardly a mug with the bat, hitting two hundreds in his 20 Tests at 32.2.

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Bairstow blasted four tons in hitting 790 runs at 63.9 to usher in the start of the Bazball era last year in a career-best purple patch without the burden of keeping.

When Ollie Pope was ruled out for the rest of the series with his shoulder injury, England could have reinstated Bairstow to his preferred specialist batter role with Foakes recalled but due to concerns around Ben Stokes’ ability to bowl due to his knee injury, they picked five bowlers. 

After two substandard Tests behind the stumps, England have actually made his task harder by promoting him two spots in the batting line-up to No.5 to give him less of a rest between keeping duties and wielding the willow.

Which meant he was back in the middle for the final few overs of day one as England finished 3-68 in response to Australia’s 263. 

This time he was making sure he put his bat behind the crease and waited for the ball to officially be dead before wandering out of the safety zone.

Bairstow’s long list of costly keeping errors grew again at Leeds, at his home ground, when he grassed a tough inside-edge chance off Steve Smith and a straightforward offering from Travis Head.

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Smith was on four at the time and only went on to make 22 so not too much damage there. 

Head, however, was on nine when Bairstow failed to reel in a feather down leg side which didn’t even require a dive. 

The South Australian left-hander went on to make 39 so individually, he didn’t rack up a big score, but he was gifted the opportunity to play the rare sheet-anchor role while Mitchell Marsh exploded at the other end for a run-a-ball 118 in their partnership of 155.

The Aussies could have been five down and then six even with a mere 98 runs on the board when Joe Root put down a sitter off Marsh early in his innings and the aggressive all-rounder cashed in for a century in his first Test in four years. 

Former England captain Nasser Hussain, in his Daily Mail column, ripped into England for their lack of attention to important details like fielding.

Australia batter Mitchell Marsh celebrates his century during day one of the LV= Insurance Ashes 3rd Test Match between England and Australia at Headingley on July 06, 2023 in Leeds, England. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Australia batter Mitchell Marsh celebrates his century. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

“Dropping catches is like a virus. A confidence thing. One goes down, and your hands stiffen up,” he wrote. “The best slip fielders I played with in Mark Waugh and Nick Knight looked like they were catching an egg, their hands were so soft.

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“But the moment one or two go down it is almost like you don’t want the ball to come to you and if you’re a bit tense, the ball can bounce off them.

“If England win, it’s all brilliant and down to Bazball. Lose, and it is because Bazball doesn’t work. When actually it is the basics of the game where they have fallen short: not having bowlers fit at the right time, batters not being ruthless when they have the opposition down, taking wickets from no-balls and fielders missing catches.”

Marsh’s ton presents a doozy of a conundrum for the Australian selectors. They rested Cameron Green as he only had a few days rest between matches after his heavy bowling workload at Lord’s left him with a slight hamstring strain but it would be extremely harsh on Marsh to drop him now. 

Root dropped Alex Carey in the final session when he was on four, which also did more psychological damage than impact on the scoreboard as he only made eight, before he managed to finally hang onto an offering from Head next ball.

The contrast between Carey and Bairstow has been huge – not just in their views on when the ball is considered dead before a stumping can be executed. The Aussie gloveman took another spectacular catch to get rid of Ben Duckett early in the England innings at Headingley.

It’s often said that the wicketkeeper sets the standards for a fielding team and Bairstow’s sloppiness has set the tone for England. 

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Former England batter Mark Butcher, mercifully subbed into the Sky Sports commentary box mid-series for Kevin Pietersen, emphasised that point, echoing Hussain’s thoughts by recalling how his contemporaries, Mark Waugh and Mark Taylor, always looked relaxed in the Australian cordon as they snaffled pretty much every Ashes chance that came their way.

Butcher said you can’t have tension when you are anywhere in the field and the English looked nervous, like they didn’t want the ball to come their way. 

He added that “tension spreads when the keeper drops a couple of catches” and when Root shelled another catch off Head in the evening session, it was the 15th missed opportunity (14 drops and one botched stumping) of the series from England. It cost them 180 extra runs at Edgbaston, 130 at Lord’s and already 158 at Headingley.

That’s three chances per innings when you are trying to take down the world Test champions. 

That’s not going to cut the mustard.

That’s village. 

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