Jonny Bairstow is going to play. So who won’t?

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Today, new writer Tom Chambers discusses Jonny Bairstow’s inevitable return to England’s Test side. Will Zak Crawley be the man to make way? It’s far from clear cut.

Brendon McCullum made a rod for his own back when speaking to the BBC’s Test Match Special team back in December. When asked about a certain Yorkshireman’s eventual return from injury the New Zealander said, “As soon as he’s fit he’s back in the side, no doubt. But let’s work that out down the line.”

With the first Ashes test due to start at Edgbaston in just four months’ time, the prospective return of Jonny Bairstow is looming larger by the day. McCullum does not seem like a man capable of going back on his word, so just who will he decide to leave out now that Bairstow’s return is guaranteed? The collective and individual performances of England’s Test team in Pakistan and New Zealand this winter have made that decision possibly the most difficult and important of McCullum’s tenure so far.

A quick glance at the numbers from Bairstow’s golden summer last year offers a clear reason of why England’s Test head coach is so keen to find a place in his team for the 33-year-old. But McCullum’s England are not a team that worships at the alter of batting averages and run rates. This is a team of positive energy, of attitude, of ‘vibes’ – and therein lies the problem. The current group of players have created an almost perfect professional environment, trying to squeeze more productivity out of them could easily have the opposite effect.

Every England supporter has asked themselves the question of who Bairstow will come in for and it seems that nobody can quite agree. The prospect of Bairstow slotting back into his role at number five in the order is a non-starter. Having scored an accumulated 548 runs over the course of his last six innings with a frankly ridiculous strike rate of 98.77, Harry Brook has not just built a case for keeping his place in the middle order, he has fortified it with high walls and bunkers and trenches. Don’t even try it Jonny.

For a while it had seemed as though the easiest option was for Bairstow to take Ben Foakes’ place in the team and either hand the gloves to Ollie Pope or wear them himself. But having made a succession of vital contributions with the bat from his position in the lower middle order, Foakes has become the figurative keystone in England’s ‘Bazball’ redemption arc. The Surrey wicketkeeper’s outstanding glovework and unique ability to stand up to the stumps for the bowling of all but the nippiest of England’s seamers are also qualities not to be overlooked. The team just seems more balanced, more nuanced, with Foakes as part of it.

When Bairstow makes his return to this team it is likely going to be in a different role to the one he vacated after suffering a freak ankle injury on the third hole at the Panaal golf course back in September. Could we see the Stokes/McCullum thinktank produce its most audacious move yet and send a middle order berserker in to open the batting? It’s a tantalising thought and one that will give Zak Crawley sleepless nights as he reflects on his struggles in Mount Maunganui and Wellington.

Crawley is a curious phenomenon. He routinely wanders back to the England changing room with his bat under his arm having contributed very little to England’s total, but my word does he look good in the short time he’s out there. Perhaps Crawley is the most ‘vibes’ cricketer in the most ‘vibes’ cricket team; a walking talking lava lamp – integral to setting just the right mood but offering little practical benefit. But in the clear light of day, this is the England cricket team in 2023 and if you’re not regularly scoring three figures at a strike rate of 85.00 then you’re bringing us all down, man – just ask Alex Lees.

Bairstow has pedigree opening the batting for England in ODI’s, including during England’s victorious World Cup campaign in 2019. In that tournament Bairstow averaged 48 with a highest score of 111 and let’s face it, since McCullum took the reins, England have been approaching Test matches as if they were being played with a white ball.

In many ways the Bairstow question is a good problem to have. There are plenty of teams in world cricket who would like the option of fielding a batter who scored more than 1000 test runs last year. Only in English cricket could the return of someone like that be seen as a problem. It’s reminiscent of the early 2010’s when the biggest issue was that Ian Bell didn’t convert his fifties into hundreds quite as regularly as every other batter on the team. As McCullum would go on to say in his chat with the BBC: “It’s a much better place to be than scrambling around for blokes!”

By confirming the safety of Jonny Bairstow’s place in the line-up (injury permitting) heading into this summer’s Ashes series, the head coach of England’s test team has backed himself into a corner. But then again, that’s just how he likes it – now he can come out swinging.

Tom Chambers