Silence of the critics is golden as Jonny Bairstow celebrates glorious year

IT has been quite a week for Jonny Bairstow.

Into the top ten: Englands Jonny Bairstow has broken into the ICCs top 10 of Test batting rankings for the first time, to move above captain Alastair Cook, and has also claimed the most Test victims for a wicketkeeper in a calendar year.
Into the top ten: Englands Jonny Bairstow has broken into the ICCs top 10 of Test batting rankings for the first time, to move above captain Alastair Cook, and has also claimed the most Test victims for a wicketkeeper in a calendar year.

First, the Yorkshireman broke the record for the most Test match dismissals by a wicketkeeper in a calendar year, beating Ian Healy’s 67.

Then, for the first time, Bairstow broke into the top 10 of the International Cricket Council Test match batting rankings.

Incidentally, it is a top 10 that also features Joe Root, Kane Williamson, Cheteshwar Pujara and Younis Khan, highlighting the quality that Yorkshire have fielded in recent times.

Bairstow – who has risen above England captain Alastair Cook in the ICC rankings – has not just had a good week, of course, but a great year.

Rewind the clock 12 months, and he was still seeking his first hundred at Test level and working hard to cement his place.

His wicketkeeping was often criticised – only lately, in fact, have those critics quietened down – and everything felt like an uphill battle.

It speaks volumes for his character that he has prospered so strongly, making his achievements all the more impressive.

A quick glance at the statistics puts Bairstow’s year into glorious context.

With two Tests of 2016 remaining, starting with next Thursday’s fourth match of the series against India in Mumbai, the 27-year-old has scored 1,355 runs at an average of 64.52.

In 13 of his 15 Test appearances this year, Bairstow has produced at least one innings of 40-plus, going on to reach seven half-centuries and three hundreds.

Considering that he has often batted as low down the order as No 7, the figures are formidable, and they maintain a level of consistency that has seen him lift his game to another level in the last couple of years.

Since the start of the 2015 English season, Bairstow has scored 3,370 runs in 36 first-class matches at an average of 66.07.

He has hit 10 hundreds and 14 fifties during that time, with a highest innings of 246 for Yorkshire against Hampshire at Headingley earlier this year.

His record for Yorkshire during that period, incidentally, is 1,641 runs in 13 first-class games at an average of 91.16.

Indeed, if you want to know why Yorkshire did not win the County Championship for a third successive season, you do not have to look too far beyond the fact that Bairstow was only available for four matches due to England duty; in 2015, he played in nine of the 16 fixtures.

What must be so satisfying for Yorkshire cricket lovers, of course, is that Bairstow has transferred the form that he has shown in county colours onto the international stage.

Root has done it in the past to great effect, and now fellow Yorkshireman Adil Rashid appears to be following suit, proving the old adage that quality invariably shines through in the end.

Bairstow’s progress is particularly heart-warming because he has done it the hard way in the face of detractors – not least former England captain Bob Willis.

It was not so long ago that Willis ventured the assessment on satellite television that Bairstow “hasn’t any sort of defence to play Test cricket, looks like a rabbit in the headlights and can’t bat above No 8 in an England Test team in the future”.

In the same breath, the former pace bowler described Rashid as “completely useless” and said “there’s no way in the world” England could have taken him to South Africa last winter because “the grounds aren’t big enough”, adding that AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis and Hashim Amla would have been “hitting him into the ocean at Durban”.

Willis is clearly at the extreme end of critical ex-players, men whose days in the sun are far behind them, and who are so out-of-touch with county cricket, in particular, that they seem surprised when the likes of Bairstow and Rashid ultimately prosper.

But Bairstow seems to have received more brickbats than most players en route to the top, and it takes a particular type of person to respond to them positively and not to let them damage their game.

Indeed, it is one thing to perform in the high-profile pressure-cooker of international cricket at the best of times; it is quite another to do so when your right to be there has been questioned as often as Bairstow’s.

From criticism of his technique against the short ball to charges against his wicketkeeping, there has been no shortage of obstacles for him to overcome in recent times.

As he said himself after the third Test against India in Mohali, where he broke Healy’s record and top-scored with 89 in the England first innings, “you’ve got two options – you can either go and hide in a corner or you can front up, take it on the chin and crack on”.

Bairstow has never come across as the type of chap to go and hide in a corner; quite the opposite, in fact.

So he took the latter option and has not looked back.

That is not to say that there is not still work to be done.

As he admitted himself, his wicketkeeping remains a work in progress, and there is no hint of complacency on his part.

“I’m not under any illusion that it’s the finished article,” he said of his keeping. “Far from it.”

At the same time, improvements behind the stumps have been there for all to see, and he is clearly getting better and better the more Test cricket he plays.

There is no hiding place for wicketkeepers, of course, with errors prone to extra magnification, and perhaps the biggest compliment one could pay Bairstow is that people have not been noticing him as much behind the stumps of late – save, of course, to pass comment on his consistency.

“There was a lot of speculation about a year ago on whether I should be keeping wicket, so to put the hard work in, and for that to come to fruition, is pleasing,” he said.

“My keeping is still nowhere near where I want it to be, though, but I like to think it’s going in the right direction.”

It is going so well, indeed, that no-one is questioning Bairstow’s right to be behind the stumps any more, let alone his place in the side – not even Willis, whose continued employment reflects poorly on Sky TV.

Indeed, as confidence soars through Bairstow’s veins, he gives the impression that he has been in the side for years, helped by his bubbly and positive demeanour.

Bairstow is a genuine all-rounder and one of the most versatile batsmen that England possess.

He can bat high up the order or he can come in lower down and help dig the side out of crisis, something that he is expert at doing.

However England utilise his skills going forward, he is sure to look back on 2016 with great satisfaction.

A year that began with a breakthrough century against South Africa in Cape Town has simply gone from strength to strength.

Through a combination of talent, hard work and a stubborn refusal to accept defeat, he has proved himself one of the world’s top players.

Yorkshire and England will be rightly proud of him.