“Just be yourself.” We’ve all heard those words before. Whether it be before an important job interview, starting at a new school or a first date—for any event of significance it’s almost always the same advice.
At the time, the words seem like hollow comfort and timid guidance, white noise amongst an orchestral crescendo of agitation and anxiety. Yet the concept of “being yourself,” especially if “yourself” has earned you success, is in fact only logical.
This week Jonny Bairstow will play for England at The Oval knowing that a double failure will see his position in the team come under serious threat. His runs tally in the series, 203 at an average of 29, is underwhelming, but more pertinently the repetitive nature of his dismissals and glaring technical flaws are alarmingly fundamental errors.
Nasser Hussain, commentating on Sky Sports, picked up on Bairstow’s tendency to play across the line of straight balls just hours into the first Test; a fault he has been working on, yet one he has yet to convincingly display that he has corrected.
Throughout the series Bairstow has appeared withdrawn and reticent—and with his own individual struggles juxtaposed by team success, he mustn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Bairstow announced his arrival on the international stage in 2011 when he whacked a Vinay Kumar delivery into the River Taff in Cardiff during a match-winning debut innings of 41 not out from just 21 balls. Bairstow was young and fearless back then: He wore a funky helmet, hit big sixes and was the future.
But now almost two years on from that innings, his exuberance of youth is but a shadow of what it was back then. Almost innings-by-innings—failure-by-failure—like rain drops hollowing out a stone, his confidence and natural enthusiasm have been enveloped by a growing sense of worry, passive panic and desperation for success.
The burden of his talent weighs heavy, but heavier still weighs the burden of faith. Faith that the England management and selectors have placed in him; faith that prevents other talented batsmen from earning their opportunity; faith that he feels he must reward.
Admittedly he’s not had it easy. Prior to the series, Bairstow was afforded precious little first-class cricket, and since it’s begun he’s come to the crease in challenging circumstances against a bowling attack that has rarely strayed. And that's not to mention England’s recent inconsistency of selection, which has seen Bairstow in and out of the team on multiple occasions in his short Test career.
However, having been picked initially largely on the natural aggression and chutzpah he displayed in limited overs cricket, Bairstow’s Test innings of late have been the very antithesis of this.
Despite the difficulty of the situations he has found England in when arriving at the crease, he has arguably been overly circumspect: His strike rate of 40 in the series is well below his career rate, and the 77 balls he faced in the first innings at Chester-le-Street yielded just 14 runs. Bairstow has emerged from his shell on fewer occasions than a snail with heliophobia.
But there is still hope yet. In the second innings in Durham he showed flashes of the player he was selected to be. At times in Test cricket there’s counterintuitive attack; but there’s also counter-attack, and on the third evening he hit six boundaries in a fluent innings of 28. That cameo was a far more cogent demonstration of his Test credentials than his scratchy and fortuitous 67 at Lord’s.
It’s not inconceivable that Bairstow could grind and battle his way to a career-saving score at The Oval. After all, his 95 against the South Africans last summer was scored off 195 balls after over five hours at the crease.
But his natural instinct is to attack. He’s a run-scorer, not a run-accumulator. Whilst such an approach may well be the cause of technical faults, no batsman is perfect, and given that he was selected on the back of such visceral urges, in the two innings he has at The Oval he may well be best served giving into them.
As Johnny Cash sang in his 1996 cover of Soundgarden’s Rusty Cage:
I’m gonna break,
I’m gonna break my,
Gonna break my rusty cage and run