Jonny Bairstow indispensable to England after so long as spare part

The sound is unique. How can this be? A regulation cricket bat hitting a regulation cricket ball: logic tells us this should sound the same whoever is swinging it. And yet intuition tells us otherwise.

Kevin Pietersen’s shots sounded like the crack of a rifle. Matthew Hayden’s sounded like an axe slicing through a tree. The bat of AB de Villiers, meanwhile, always made a delightful pock noise, however violently he was hitting it, as if he was simply helping the ball to wherever it was meant to go.

When Jonny Bairstow hits the ball exactly the way he wants to hit it, it sounds like music. Like a perfect chord, or a beat of the cleanest drum you’ve ever heard. The feet anchor in the crease, the hips square off and the forearms come through in a simple, pure swing. Nothing is wasted or excessive. The sound gives away the purity of the shot long before you can see it. And the ball simply flies, and for a while it feels as if it may never land.

There have been times during the past few weeks when it seems as though Bairstow himself has been defying gravity. Clips off the legs race for four. Thick edges fly safely over the slips. Pull shots bisect the field. And even as India pressed home their advantage on day three at Edgbaston, the mood in the stands remained boisterous: a home crowd still basking in the glow of the second summer of Jonny.

First the numbers, which are impressive enough: since his career-saving 113 in Sydney in January, Bairstow has made five centuries in nine Tests at an average of 68. So far this calendar year he has scored more runs than any other Test batter. None of this was inevitable.

So what happened? How did we go from the pale vestige of a cricketer we glimpsed for much of 2021 to the dominant force we saw here? And – just as intriguingly – why now? Why not earlier? How has a cricketer of such abundant talent spent most of his career fighting entropy?

On a watery Sunday morning in Birmingham we got a few clues. India were rampant, relentless, expectant in those early overs. Every ball felt like an epic. Mohammed Shami was swinging it around corners. Jasprit Bumrah was jagging the ball in both directions. With England’s hopes resting entirely on Bairstow’s partnership with Ben Stokes, Virat Kohli chose this moment to approach Bairstow and offer a few handy pointers.