England vs India: How Bairstow overcame personal tragedy and doubts to become a beast of a batsman
The way Jonny Bairstow bats these days is the way he has always wanted to bat.
Once, he even sought out a sports psychologist David Priestly to sort out his mental approach to batting. The chat lasted 10 minutes. Priestley wanted Bairstow to pen down the basic principles of his game. Shortly, Bairstow wrote: ‘See the ball, hit the ball, dominate, keep it simple’. Priestly read it, pushed it back, and said: “That’s your blueprint. use it.” Bairstow laminated the paper and carried it in his kit bag. The clarity was what he needed then. He hasn’t always been able to bat that way in Tests but this season, things have turned around dramatically even in red-ball cricket, with hundreds in three successive Tests and five in 2022 till date.
As he has done repeatedly this season, Bairstow has once again become the boy messing around joyously with his father David, a popular Yorkshire cricketer of his time.
On a cold January night, an eight-year-old Jonny walked into his home at 8.30 pm, with sister Becky and mother Janet, to find his father had hung himself from the staircase. David had been suffering from depression but to this date, the family doesn’t really know why he did what he did.
The glorious summer of Jonny Bairstow
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Just couple of hours before his suicide, David had booked a table at a restaurant for dinner with his wife. Couple of months earlier, Janet had learned that she had cancer and life at the Bairstows had turned topsy-turvy. Then this tragedy. The day after the death, Janet, who was in the police force then, sent the kids to school. Jonny was angry with his dad in the immediate aftermath.
“When things were at their darkest and the grief in me was raw and at its worst. The feeling came and went again, wiped away because I realized he loved us and I realized, too, how desperate he must have been to make the choice he did.”
It was at a neighbour’s house, one evening shortly after the death, that perhaps turned Jonny around. He stood next to his mother, staring out of the window at the garden, when he quietly said, “Don’t worry, we will be alright.” He doesn’t remember saying it but his mother Janet did, and would remind him years later at how mentally strong he was even as an eight-year-old.
His autobiography ‘A Clear Blue Sky’ is a remarkable tale of a boy’s love for his father. Page after page, he recreates the scenes with his hero, recounts what his father’s peers thought of him, sighs over the missed moments of what could have been – it’s difficult not to be moved reading it.
The mother’s cancer would spurt up again, forcing a distraught Bairstow to rush from an Indian tour to get to the hospital just before his mother was wheeled into the operation theatre. A kiss on the forehead, and a few mumbles of comfort was all he could give. Luckily, she recovered and remains his emotional recliner.
In late 2015 after the dismal World Cup, his grandfather, who had taken care of him after his father’s death, died and Bairstow responded with a career-turning hundred against New Zealand that helped them clinch the ODI series at home.
The YJB celebration
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For 10 years now, Ian Dews, director of cricket at Yorkshire and his mentor, has been urging Bairstow to be Jonny. Be the best he can be, instead of trying to outdo others. Some of the stories reveal a lot about early Jonny.
“When Jonny was 16, there was this lad in club cricket who would hit big sixes and he hit a few that day at Headingley. It was the last ball before lunch, and we all thought Jonny would defend like any sensible lad. Instead, he walked down the track and hit a six out of the ground. He walked into the dressing room saying, ‘Did you see that? My six was bigger than anything he did!’ Dews once told this newspaper.
It all changed during the Cape Town Test in 2016 when in the company of a marauding Ben Stokes, Bairstow came up with his first ton, a composed measured knock against South Africa.
Jonny Bairstow’s Strike Rate before Kohli’s Sledging -: 21
Post Sledging – 150
Pujara ki tarah khel rahe thhey, Kohli ne Pant banwa diya bewajah sledge karke #IndvsEng
— Virender Sehwag (@virendersehwag) July 3, 2022
“Old Jonny would have been in competition with Stokes. If someone hit a six, he would want to hit a bigger one. That day in Cape Town, he realized he didn’t have to become bigger, better than anyone else: that he could just be Jonny.”
“I think it was such a phenomenal knock by Stokes that Jonny realized he couldn’t better it. He didn’t have to be in competition. That he could bat carefully and that’s what was best for the team. From then on, he hasn’t looked back.”
Flaming hair and ginger beard has given Bairstow the nickname Ron Weasley after the Harry Potter character, and growing up, he was good at most sports. “Rugby, Football (he was with Leeds juniors from age of 7 to 15), hockey. It was clear that whichever sports he finally decided to go for, he was going to be a good player. How good, nobody knew,” Dews says.
Not only was he good at cricket but Bairstow wanted to be involved in everything. “At one point, for our club, he would open the batting, open the bowling (he would bowl good seam-up), and later, bowl spin, again both off and leg-spin. And of course, he was always ready to keep wicket! It was insane!” Dews laughs.
If he couldn’t be in the thick of action, Bairstow would get bored and doze off. “Oh yes, the sleeping. I have come to the dressing room at lunch and seen him take a 20-minute nap after he had his food. He would sleep in the team bus. He could sleep anywhere, anytime if he wasn’t doing anything.”
Dews played a part in Bairstow’s revival after the horrid 2013-14 Ashes tour by overhauling his batting technique.
One day, just before the county season started, the pair were at the batting nets and decided to tweak his game. Bairstow stood with a raised back-lift and found that he was better at being still at the crease as a result. “My original idea was simply to play straight. Get my balance. Get my head and eyes over the ball. I wanted to stop going after deliveries – and I also wanted to start playing them later rather than in front of me,” Bairstow writes in his book.
Dews, who was feeding balls from the bowling machine, remembers one shot in particular from that afternoon. “He hit the ball so high and hard that it punched a hole in the wall behind me. He had started to hit the ball so hard that I thought I needed a helmet.”
“If there is criticism of him, he would make sure he goes and does exactly that – only better. And he would go, ‘see, I told you I could do it’”, Dews tells this newspaper.
English old-timers recall a knock from his father David in 1980, in an ODI against Australia, when he told his team-mate Graham Stevenson when he walked out to bat at a tense situation in the game. “Evening lad, we can piss this.” They won that game by two wickets and seven balls to spare.
Jonny perhaps didn’t have that nonchalance or allowed it in the past but in recent weeks, one can easily visualize Jonny saying that. In fact, in the last Test against New Zealand when the chips were seemingly down, when Stokes joined him in the middle, he would tell Bairstow: “Let’s see if we can do Trent Bridge all over again”.
Bairstow’s father would have approved of that sentiment. “Ben (Stokes) said don’t even think about hitting one down, hit it into the stands… When there’s been so many runs scored in the game, you don’t look at it as a record run-chase, we saw it as a one-day game,” Bairstow would share later, referring to the fourth-innings chase of 299 in the previous game, achieved in 50 overs.
Bairstow’s lived experiences have molded him into a character who refuses to give in to the vicissitudes of life.
As he puts it: “Life goes on. It must. And you have to catch happiness as it flies, enjoying it there and then and for however long it lasts.”