THE question hung uncomfortably in the air at the post-match press conference.
“Is keeping wicket something that you want to keep on doing?” enquired one national newspaper journalist of Jonny Bairstow after the Yorkshireman had been named man-of-the-match at the Headingley Test.
Those of us who know Bairstow, who know how hard he works at his wicketkeeping, and who know how hurt he has been by criticism of it braced ourselves for a lively reply.
“For the 52nd time in two weeks,” he began, “I do want to keep wicket, yes.
“I think that this needs to be swept under the table now and put to bed.
“I think I’ve been asked it too many times.
“As I’ve said numerous times before, I wouldn’t have kept wicket for Yorkshire for the last seven years if I didn’t want to keep wicket for England.”
Bairstow, who scored a hundred in the match against Sri Lanka and took nine catches behind the stumps, the first Englishman to perform that double in a Test, could have been forgiven for feeling brassed off.
The question would, no doubt, not have cropped up at all had he not dropped one chance in the Sri Lanka second innings, a diving one-handed effort to his right, an opportunity that he would have expected to grasp.
But it was one chance out of 10, nine of which were taken, in an otherwise excellent performance.
Not bad for someone keeping wicket for the first time in a Test match in England.
I sympathised with Bairstow during that press conference.
No-one would say that he is the finished article as a wicketkeeper – least of all himself – but he is clearly improving the more that he does it.
People forget what Matt Prior was like at the start of his career before he discovered greater consistency.
Bairstow is already better than Prior was at that stage, and he will only improve as time goes on.
Sometimes, we are much too quick to write off players.
Bairstow is 26 – still a young man – and someone still making his way in the game.
Four years ago, people said that he had a problem batting against the short ball and was not good enough for Test cricket.
He was then only 22 and just a spring chicken.
In my view, Bairstow is suffering precisely because a number of people have previously written him off.
Indeed, to praise him now is to lose face in their eyes; Bob Willis, for example, has panned him consistently on satellite television, even saying that he could never bat above No 8 in the Test team, an observation that now looks even more absurd than it did at the time.
During the Headingley Test, Willis made a remark about Bairstow being up to scratch as a Test match wicketkeeper when the ball came straight at him, the implication being that he was not up to scratch when the ball went either side of him.
But if you slag off someone who goes on to become one of the best players in the world, as Bairstow now is, perhaps you are more likely to keep digging a hole for yourself like Willis than have the grace to back down.
To be clear, Bairstow is not yet the finished article.
These ramblings were written before the start of the second Test, so do not take into account anything that may or may not have happened at Chester-le-Street.
But when an entertainer like Bairstow comes along, surely you have to encourage him and celebrate his talent?
Otherwise, what is the point of watching sport full-stop?
Yorkshire and England are certainly doing their bit to encourage the player.
They do not fill Bairstow’s head with all manner of technical stuff; they just say to him: ‘Go out and play.’
Granted, this does not work with everyone, but Bairstow is not your everyday player.
He is already one of the best that Yorkshire have ever had, and that is saying something.
The improvements that Bairstow has made to his batting in recent times, improvements that saw him average 92 in first-class cricket last season and something similar this, he has mostly worked out for himself.
They are the product of an intelligent mind and prodigious natural skill.
If someone has talent, they should be encouraged to express it.
They should be given the freedom to get on with the job.
With that in mind, I liked Paul Farbrace’s comments after the Headingley Test.
The England assistant coach said: “The big thing (we say to Bairstow) is: ‘Go and play the way that you play.’
“Martyn Moxon (Yorkshire’s director of cricket) has done a brilliant job with him, and we’re certainly not trying to complicate it.
“With someone like Jonny, it literally is a case of: ‘Well, good luck, go and play.’”
All credit to Farbrace and Yorkshire for adopting that strategy.
And another thing...
IN addition to the thrill of making a Test hundred on his home ground, the thing that most pleased Jonny Bairstow about his display at Headingley was that he backed up his form for England in the winter.
After a hitherto stop-start international career, Bairstow came of age when he topped the averages on the tour of South Africa, scoring 359 runs at 71.8.
Bairstow hit his maiden Test century – 150 not out at Cape Town – and proved to the world that he has what it takes. He followed up by scoring 140 in the Test match at Leeds.
Bairstow will hope to keep backing up that form and play regularly for England in all forms of the game.
It seems slightly incongruous that he has not been in the one-day/T20 sides lately, and there is no reason why he and Jos Buttler cannot play in the same XI in limited-overs cricket.
If you have a dynamic batsman like Bairstow, it makes no sense to leave him out. You have to find a way of getting him involved.