Varun Shetty in Hyderabad (April 23, 2019)


When I first spot Jonny Bairstow at a press session, he orders a cappuccino and settles behind the table. He’s effusive and energetic, taking the occasional pause to joke with the journalists. The sounds of an enthusiastic cameraman’s shutter punctuate most of his answers, but Bairstow carries on, answering in detail many questions that can be easily straight-batted. He waits till the end of the session and makes the room chuckle when he says, “Sir! You live in your camera.”

“You should have told me,” he says to the Sunrisers’ media manager, “that I’d be on camera. Would have done my hair.” Some minutes later, he sits down to chat with ESPNcricinfo, and notices that our cameraman’s shirt is “tight around his guns”. Bairstow is in a fabulous mood and looks to be having the time of his life.

Why wouldn’t he be? With Sunrisers Hyderabad this year, he has had his best T20 season ever, eclipsing 2014 with Yorkshire, where he made 355 runs in 11 innings. In the IPL, he went past that mark in just his eighth innings. He was in the auction last year but wasn’t picked. As far as debut seasons go for an overseas player, this has been nothing short of excellent in a league to which first-timers don’t take easily.

“It’s not difficult to motivate yourself at all,” Bairstow says. “It’s a competition that I’ve really, really wanted to play a number of years. You hear stories about people coming over and playing, and it being such a fantastic competition. The fans, how fanatical they are, the atmosphere at the ground. The whole way it’s put together is brilliant. If you can’t motivate yourself to get up and play in front of 30,000-40,000 people, then you’re not in the right job.”

Just over 24 hours later, he shows he’s in the right job, having a near-perfect work day in front of 30,170 people.

The very first ball is down leg side and he lunges out and grabs it behind the wicket. He’s in the captain’s ear often, and the fielders keep an eye on him as he fine-tunes their positions. By the end of the innings, he has taken a catch and completed a run-out, of Kolkata Knight Riders captain Dinesh Karthik. Sunrisers have already broken a four-match losing streak by keeping Chennai Super Kings to 132 in their previous game. Knight Riders manage 159 here, but they have more of the same thing coming for them: Bairstow in combination with David Warner.

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Sunrisers can’t be accused of inconsistency. For three consecutive IPL seasons between 2015 and 2017, Warner and Shikhar Dhawan were the opening pair with the most runs in the season. The two put on 16 stands of 50-plus scores in that period, and the streak was only broken in 2018, when Warner was banned from the league following the ball-tampering scandal.

He returned for the 2019 season, but Sunrisers had traded Dhawan to Delhi Capitals, banking on the captain, Kane Williamson, who had filled in effectively for Warner in 2018. But Williamson had a recurrence of a shoulder niggle at the start of this season, which meant Sunrisers had to take a call on either playing one of their overseas openers – Bairstow and Martin Guptill – or using a domestic wicketkeeper to fit in one of their overseas allrounders. Bairstow didn’t expect to start straightaway.

“With the four overseas [players] that can play in any team, and you look at the overseas [players] that we’ve got within the squad, you’ve got four guys that are not playing currently that can be in any moment. So, no, by no means did I think I’d be starting the tournament,” he says.

“I just saw it as an opportunity to go out there and enjoy myself, and play the IPL. That was purely and simply what it was. To experience a new task, a new challenge, to be able to go out and explore the skills that I’ve been working on and go and play in front of a fantastic crowd in that first game at Eden Gardens.”

 

In that game, Bairstow played the supporting role as he and Warner put on 118 in 77 balls against Knight Riders. It was the first of three consecutive century stands they put up at the start of the season. Bairstow played second fiddle in the second one as well, but during the third, a 185-run stand off 16 overs against Royal Challengers, he hit a blistering 114 off 56 balls.

Warner also made a century that day and together they set plenty of records – the highest opening stand in the IPL, the first IPL pair to make three consecutive century stands, and only the second instance of both openers scoring centuries.

“If you can’t motivate yourself to get up and play in front of 30,000-40,000 people, then you’re not in the right job”

It was an outlandish feat for a pair who had never batted together before. In an Ashes year, many thought the bigger achievement was the hug between the two after Bairstow got to that hundred, a bromance England’s ODI captain, Eoin Morgan, equated with the Ronaldo-Rooney alliance at Manchester United more than a decade ago.

“We didn’t know we were going to be opening together, for a start,” Bairstow says about the partnership. “Obviously at the start of the tournament, you’ve got different balances of teams. You don’t know which balance of the team people are going for. We’ve seen [Mohammad] Nabi getting two or three Man-of-the-Match awards and then having to miss the next game. But to be given the nod was really pleasing.”

Bairstow and Warner’s 118 runs in Kolkata helped Sunrisers raise 181, but it didn’t prove to be enough to stop Andre Russell taking KKR to victory. In the return fixture, on Sunday, Bairstow and Warner were asked to chase after Knight Riders had dragged themselves to 159. Bairstow and Warner got 72 in the Powerplay, the highest for any team this season, put on a 131-run stand, and took SRH home at a canter.

At the moment, only Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers’ five 100-plus stands in 2016 better this partnership. Bairstow recalls the first thing that clicked for him while batting with Warner.

“Our running between the wickets,” he says. “If you’ve got someone else that’s quick between the wickets and have an understanding that I can get back and he’s quick in the turn, then you just go, ‘Yeah.’ You don’t even have to look, because you’ve got the trust of the call. You can register the speed of the ball [as] it’s going out to the field.

“These all come over a period of time that you’re out there in the middle, over different surfaces, because each ground is different. The dimensions are different. But the one thing that stays consistent is the 30-yard circle and if you can keep it just inside the 30-yard circle, you’re pretty much gonna get back [for the second].

“I think we’ve just played really good shots as well. It’s not just been about slogging it. A lot more teams have hit a lot more sixes than us. But I think with our games, it’s probably more suited to being in the field and manipulating the bowlers and getting those twos.”

Has he ever been in a partnership this prolific?

“Not one that I’ve been notified of, no!” He says. “I think Jason Roy and I have put on some good partnerships for England over the last two years. But as you say, in a condensed period of time this has definitely been really good fun and something that I’ve really enjoyed.”

Bairstow doesn’t particularly think it’s going to have much of an effect if they face each other in the Ashes. He isn’t even particularly interested in thinking that far ahead, to a format far removed from the IPL. Officially, he has one more day as an IPL player this season. On Wednesday, he joins the England camp for his first World Cup.

“To be up there in the top five league run scorers after eight games is really, really pleasing in my first season,” he said, “and hopefully I can finish on a high and put the guys in a position where we can be in and around the playoffs.”

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There isn’t an IPL team that can say they have Bairstow figured out yet, in that there aren’t weaknesses that they can plan for. He has been dismissed six times by spinners in eight innings, but he averages 41.16 against them, striking at 154.33, compared to his 163.5 against pace. Bairstow is quick to point this out when I bring up any potential challenges he might have faced against the complex mix of spinners in the IPL.

“Look, I think that playing spin over here is a big part of it. And to score the runs that I have means I’m making runs against spin and seam. It’s not just against seam that I’ve scored them. You can look at stats all you like. You can face hardly any seam in the first six; you can face a majority of seam in the first six; you can be on strike; you can be off strike. There’s lots of ways to interpret data. But I think that it’s been a really good way of learning different methods to play against different spinners. People that predominantly bowl googlies, people that bowl balls that go both ways, tall spinners, small spinners, everything in between… it’s great.”

The conversations with Sunrisers mentor VVS Laxman on playing spin have been simple: play the ball late, trust that you can get contact to clear the boundaries. Nine matches over a few weeks aren’t a lot to go by, but Bairstow reckons adjusting to India’s many conditions and surfaces has made him a better player. At the very least, it has made him a more confident player ahead of a World Cup that features five teams from the subcontinent.

“You’ve got Afghanistan that’ll probably bowl 30-40 overs of spin,” he says, when asked about England’s chances at the World Cup. “And you don’t know in England – it’s not like in India, where if you see a pitch is dry then it’s definitely going to turn. Sometimes it can be a bit softer in England and a bit tacky, so it can turn as well. If they can potentially limit the team to a score, then you’ve seen people like [Mohammad] Shahzad go and whack it.”

A key part of that Afghanistan strategy, of course, is Bairstow’s Sunrisers team-mate Rashid Khan, who claimed after one match that he had five variants of the legbreak alone.

“Well, if he’s got five, I can’t pick four of them! As far as I know, he’s got one and it turns away from you.

“Yeah, it’s been tough. He bowls at 100kph and turns it both ways. It’s been a really great challenge and been really fun doing it. The more you do, the more you enjoy it. And he’s definitely a pleasure to keep to.”

There are obvious technical benefits of playing alongside world cricket’s big stars, but the more relevant parallel between the IPL and the World Cup is the lengths of both tournaments. While Bairstow and Warner rattled away at the top, Sunrisers’ four-match losing streak in the middle of the tournament could have been potentially season-ending if it had come at a later stage. Knight Riders themselves are currently in a five-match streak where Karthik says they have found ways to lose games. The World Cup’s new format will mean each team plays nine league games, and that could mean high-pressure situations, even for favourites like England.

“Leading into the World Cup and leading into the latter end of this tournament,” says Bairstow, “you go about the games as if you’ve got to win every game, because you want to get into that top four. We haven’t necessarily played our best cricket in a few of the games, which has meant that we’ve got to win some games in this back end. Leading in, it’s great to play in high-pressure environments in front of big crowds.”

With nine England home ODIs to go before they get into the World Cup, and given how an increasing number of English one-day Cup games are springing scores of 350-plus, you’d imagine one of international cricket’s best openers over the last two years is salivating at the prospects. But at the end of a fabulous Indian summer, Bairstow, however much he’s enjoying life, isn’t ready to jump the gun.

“I think they’re completely different batting conditions,” he said. “They’re tough in different ways because if the ball seams a little bit in England, it can be tough. Likewise here, if it spins it can be tough. So we don’t know what conditions, we don’t know what weather England’s going to have in store for us. Sometimes it can be overcast, sometimes it can be nice and sunny. The pitch can change.

“So yeah, looking forward to getting back home. It will be nice to spend a bit of time at home. Been on the road for quite a while now. It’s an exciting summer of cricket ahead. Everyone’s talking about the World Cup, everyone’s talking about the selections that have been coming out. Hopefully everyone can stay fit and be involved.”

Source: Jonny Bairstow relishes the ‘high-pressure environment’ of his fabulous Indian summer | ESPNcricinfo.com

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