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Is Jonny Bairstow on his way to becoming England’s best ever ODI batsman

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Can Bairstow become England's GOAT?

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Is Jonny Bairstow on his way to becoming England’s best ever ODI batsman

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Anirudh Suresh

08/04/2020

Jonny Bairstow’s 3000th ODI run was brought up in the most underwhelming fashion imaginable: a wild flash from the Yorkshireman resulted in the ball taking the outside edge of his bat after which it raced off to the boundary. It came in front of empty stands against the 11th best side in the world.

There was a very mild round of applause, most probably from his own teammates, and what followed was Bairstow puzzledly sharing some glove-love with his partner at the other end, Sam Billings, as the commentator unenthusiastically announced, “3000 runs for Jonny Bairstow. Equals Joe Root as England’s fastest to get there”. Given Arsenal and Chelsea were playing an FA Cup final at Wembley at the same time, some 80 miles away, chances are that very few people would have witnessed, even on television, Bairstow’s belligerent knock. In a way, the knock was Bairstow’s ODI career in a nutshell, for it showcased the two attributes that have defined his entire career: one, brutal hitting from his bat and two, his actual performance getting eclipsed. 

Of course, Arsenal and Chelsea had to play the FA Cup final on a day when Bairstow smashed the joint-fastest fifty in his country’s history. Just like how MS Dhoni had to become the talking point in a match where the Yorkshireman struck the most important century of his career - and perhaps in England’s ODI history - and just like how England had to make the highest ever ODI total in a game where Bairstow posted his second-highest ODI score.  Bairstow’s knocks and achievements in the 50-over format have been bedimmed due to various reasons, not least his own Test form and the presence of larger-than-life cricketers in his team such as Ben Stokes, Jason Roy and Jos Buttler, but there is only one word to describe the right-hander’s career: phenomenal. 

Not only can Bairstow make a case that he is, by far, the best, most reliable and important batsman in the English side, but he has every right to claim that he is one of the best ever in the country’s history - if not the best. In the 2nd ODI at the Ageas Bowl versus Ireland, Bairstow brought up his 3000th ODI run in his 72nd inning; none of the 257 cricketers to have donned the Blue jersey in England’s 49-year ODI history have gotten to this mark quicker and only four batsmen - Viv Richards, Babar Azam, Shai Hope and Hashim Amla - have reached this milestone in fewer innings than the Englishman in the history of the game. None among the four, however, have a strike rate that is even remotely close to that of Bairstow’s, which is a ludicrous 105.69. 

It is vitally important to talk about Bairstow’s strike rate, for it is often overlooked, passed over and not given the due credit it deserves. To put Bairstow’s strike rate of 105.69 into perspective, only three other batsmen in the history of the format who have scored over 3,000 runs have had a higher strike rate than the Yorkshireman and no batsman in ODI cricket history has possessed a strike rate over 105 whilst averaging as much as he does, which is 46.98. Here we have a batsman who, in his 79-match ODI career, has been more consistent and prolific, at least statistically, than Kumar Sangakkara, Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting, and more explosive than Sanath Jayasuriya, Virender Sehwag and Adam Gilchrist

As absurd as it sounds, though, really, the numbers are just a reflection of how good Bairstow has been in ODI colours. There is a strong case to be made that he, at this point in time, is England's best batsman and can, very well, end his career as perhaps their greatest ever. 

The impact Bairstow has had on this English side has been ineffable, especially since his elevation as a permanent opener, which happened right towards the end of the 2017 Champions Trophy. Since being promoted to the opening slot, Bairstow has scored more runs - 2360 - and more centuries - nine - than any other English batsman; he is also only one of two English batsmen to have scored over 2000 ODI runs in the last 3 years - the other being Joe Root - and his boundary tally of 346 (4s and 6s combined) in this period is 75 more than any of his teammates. Rohit Sharma, in fact, is the only opener to have bettered this tally in the said timeframe.

But more than the weightage of the runs and the rate at which he’s scored them, it is the sheer impact created by Bairstow’s performances that have propelled England from being dark horses to World Champions. England’s ‘Project 2019’ might have begun right after the 2015 World Cup exit but it wasn’t until Bairstow’s elevation as an opener that it started to catch fire; that they started to create daylight between themselves and the other teams.

After promoting Bairstow to the top of the order, England, barring the freak defeat at the hands of Scotland in 2018, went unbeaten in all 10 bilateral series they played between June 2017 and July 2019 and this included victories away in Australia and at home both against India and Australia. Their win-percentage rose from 65.21% (from April 2015 to June 2017) to 74.46% from (June 2017 till the 2019 World Cup) and during the latter timeframe,  they posted 300+ totals in 64% of the matches they batted first, while they also breached the 400-run barrier twice. 

Indeed, this was also rendered possible by the contributions of Roy, Root, Morgan, Stokes and even Rashid, but it would be naive to pretend that Bairstow didn’t have the biggest hand and impact in this change. His partnership with Jason Roy at the top of the order - which, as of the moment, is the greatest and most prolific opening partnership in English history -  is widely celebrated, but what’s often undermined and downplayed is Bairstow’s role in the same; people tend to forget that Roy averaged 34 with the bat prior to opening with Bairstow - 49.90 since he started opening with him - and his previous partnership with Hales was rather underwhelming, with the duo averaging just 34.71 in 40 innings together. 

Thanks to the presence of Root, Buttler and Morgan - and now Stokes, and maybe even Roy - it will always be difficult to look at Bairstow as England’s best batsman, but, as the numbers suggest, it is the simple, undeniable truth. 

Each of the other batsmen on the list have shortcomings or have not lived up to their potential, and this weakens their case. Root, for one, has always been a run accumulator, but he’s been just that; he has always relied on the others to deliver the sucker punch and this has limited the impact he can have on matches. Both Buttler and Morgan have died by the sword one too many times in the past 12 or so months, and have also at times been double-minded when it comes to their approach, and their failure to live up to expectations in the World Cup, barring the odd great knock, hurt the side big time. Roy has a perennial and radical weakness versus spin and Stokes will never be more than a crisis-man at best due to the side’s build.

Bairstow, on the other hand, is the best of all worlds - he is a run accumulator, he is a big-match player, he is an x-factor and he has no real weakness to his game. Any doubts regarding his ability to play spin, which was considered his Achilles Heel and arose after he got out for a golden duck to Imran Tahir in the 2019 World Cup’s first game, was quashed after the India game, where he demolished Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal and was responsible for permanently breaking up that duo which had, until that point, been the most devastating pairing in limited-overs cricket for a good part of 18 months.

There is also little doubt regarding his ability to step up when it matters, for he scored back-to-back tons in do-or-die matches against India and New Zealand in the World Cup and finished the campaign as England’s second-highest run-getter. If anything, the Yorkshireman can be held accountable for not going on to make daddy hundreds - he has no 150+ scores to his name - but given England have mind-boggling firepower down the order, there’s no real reason for Bairstow to bat long. 

50 innings as an opener might be a negligible sample-set but Bairstow, through his performances and impact he’s had, has proved that he belongs to the top 1%. Indeed, there will always be that stigma around him due to his withering Test form, but, at the rate he’s going, it’s only a matter of time before people start separating JB the ODI batsman from JB the Test batsman. Early days, but there’s no reason why Jonny Bairstow cannot end his career as the greatest English ODI batsman of all time.  

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