As England prepare to fly out for an Ashes winter, Jonny Bairstow reveals how he fought to become a cricketer after his father’s death, in a revealing extract from his new autobiography.
Sport was my life. Each day of every week was dominated by it. I was constantly on the move and wanted nothing more than to have a go at everything. Through enormous good fortune, I ended up going to a school that enabled me to do exactly that. My dad had been a Freemason, doing a lot of charity work, and the Masonic lodge to which he belonged came to our rescue, initiating a trust fund through the main body of the organisation.
It paid for what my mum and my grandparents couldn’t afford, which was private schooling for Becky and me. We went to St Peter’s School in York. It changed our lives.
Without our trust fund, the fees would have been well above our means. My mum had to buy part of my uniform from the school’s second-hand shop.
The acres of greenery there seemed to me like some sporting Eden, running on for ever. I’ve always believed that you should play as many sports as possible. Each sport will develop the others.
At St Peter’s, I “discovered” rugby, which became – and remains – a passion of mine. From it I absorbed an important lesson. When you’re in an awkward scrape, you have two choices: fight or flight.
I learnt it whenever an opponent, usually taller, wider and more muscular, came at me with the ball in his hands and murder in his eyes.
You either tackled him or got clean out the way. The latter strategy ducked any danger of being left flat on your back, the outline of your body pressed into the turf after he’d trampled right across your chest, but it also showed that you shouldn’t be on the pitch in the first place.
You had to hold your ground. I’d finish a rugby match sometimes sore and exhausted, but I felt afterwards the satisfaction of being dog-weary because I’d done hard, decent work.
At St Peter’s we won the quarter-final of the Daily Mail Cup, the prospect of a Twickenham final ahead.
We lost our semi-final, missing out on Twickenham, but for a while I contemplated a career in rugby until I realised that, physically, I probably wouldn’t be able to compete in it.
My uncle Ted, who is a former England under-18 manager, thought I was wrong, arguing that I could bulk myself up and soon develop the right physique.
The chances of making it in professional sport are low, but the disappointments of failure still seem particularly cruel when they occur.
I’ve read about teenagers, especially footballers, who have been unable to handle them.
A contract was their only target, their sole purpose, and their lives became fractured as soon as a coach spoke the sentence that begins with the words: “I’m sorry, son...”
I have heard that sentence. I know how it tears you up. Leeds United let me go from their academy. I protested that I hadn’t been given a decent enough run.
I said my piece knowing it wouldn’t make a difference. I think, deep down, I knew two other things too.
■ Being cut then saved me from being cut later on.
■ Cricket was my game.
I know there are teenagers – again, chiefly footballers – who haven’t been able to cope with the sense of loss and futility that being cast aside brings.
They feel let down and used and angry. Their life, stripped of a clear purpose, has gone haywire as a consequence.
I was fortunate, not only because I had cricket, but also because I had my mum, who made sure no resentment lingered. I had something else to concentrate on, she said.
At St Peter’s, I decided I wanted to be a professional cricketer more than anything else. I remember, during exam season, that one master saw me going to nets when almost everyone else was going to the library: “Young Mr Bairstow off to play cricket again, while everyone else is in exam mode for university.” He said it quizzically, the implication that I was somehow slacking impossible to ignore.
I breezed past him anyway, holding my bulging bag, and replied without hesitation: “Cricket is my exam – and my university. And cricket is going to be my career.”
I spoke the words so firmly and with such certainty, as though I’d been given a glimpse into the future and knew already what it held for me, that the master offered nothing in response.
I had startled him into a numbed silence, the way my dad had once startled Brian Close into one.
The head of cricket at St Peter’s, a post he’d held for more than 30 years, was David Kirby, a former pupil who returned to become a master, as much a part of the school as the stone used to build it.
I was fast-tracked into the school first team at 13 years old. David and fellow master Mike Johnson, also vitally important in moulding my early cricket, later said – very flatteringly – that playing me in my own age group would have turned every match into a “farce” because I could have scored more runs than the entire opposition team.
My debut was Sedbergh, a town that’s one of the gateways to the Lake District. I came in at number five and the Sedbergh team looked at me the way a cat looks at a mouse.
I was only about 4 foot 10 tall, which was about a foot shorter than anyone else.
I was skinny too, and I suppose the pads and the bat in my hand must have appeared a little too big for me. The pitch was a pudding, the ball coming off it so lowly and slowly that hardly anyone so far had been able to get a shot to go much further than extra cover.
I played the first few balls defensively until the bowler decided to pitch one up, which was exactly what I wanted him to do. I saw the thing early and clearly, getting in position to smack an on drive for four. The Sedbergh side were dumbfounded, as if something possibly hallucinatory had just happened.
They found it hard to believe that the small, weedy lad in front of them had sufficient strength to get the ball off the square.
David Kirby and Mike Johnson will tell you that I was a precocious lad. Like my dad had been, I was a “yappy ginger fella”, never afraid of voicing an opinion – or two – even in my first season.
The fact that I was junior to anyone else didn’t stop me from having an unquiet word with the captain if I thought the set of the field wasn’t right. Or if I believed a bowler, for example, was bowling too short. Or if I spotted a flaw in an opposition batsman’s technique that we could exploit.
It got me into trouble once. We were doing reasonably well against a side when their supposedly most accomplished batsman came in. There was a shower of rain and I was short enough to shelter from it beside the square leg umpire.
The game continued, and I watched the new batsman for an over or two and then said to the umpire: “If this is the best guy they’ve got, I think we’ll polish them off pretty soon.”
No one had told me that the umpire was the batsman’s father. I had to apologise to him afterwards.
I owe so much to the chances St Peter’s gave me.
A Clear Blue Sky by Jonny Bairstow and Duncan Hamilton is published by Harper Collins, priced £20.