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Will Bairstow fire England’s title defence? | Cricket


Will Bairstow fire England’s title defence? | Cricket

Across formats, the importance of opening batters has been immense. In Tests, they have the daunting task of seeing off the new ball. As T20 cricket has evolved, the need for them to exploit the powerplay overs has kept growing. And in ODIs, openers have the unenviable job of tackling the new ball as well as grinding it out in the middle overs.

Jonny Bairstow during a practice session ahead of the ICC Men's Cricket World Cup 2023 match between England and South Africa, in Mumbai(PTI)
Jonny Bairstow during a practice session ahead of the ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup 2023 match between England and South Africa, in Mumbai(PTI)

It’s a huge responsibility which requires specialised skills. And in a marquee event like the World Cup where the pressure is immense, the opening batters must deliver to give their team the upperhand. They have the opportunity to face the most deliveries and can leave a huge impact on the outcome of the tournament.

In four of the five previous ODI World Cups, both openers of the winning team finished among the top 10 run-scorers of the tournament. Overall, seven of the 12 editions – barring 1975, 1983, 1996, 1999 and 2015 – saw both openers of the winning team feature among the top 10 run-getters.

In the ongoing World Cup too, it’s been a similar story so far. After 18 matches, six of the top 10 run-scorers are openers. However, the returns for defending champions England in this regard hasn’t been great.

In 2019, openers Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow played crucial roles as England won their first ODI World Cup. This time, they’ve had a tough start and have lost two of their first three matches. Roy is not in the squad while the lack of big scores from Bairstow has hurt them.

That Bairstow possesses the skills to turn a game on its head is well known. The 34-year-old has played a number of blazing, match-winning knocks for England since he made his debut in 2011. In the last ODI World Cup, he finished as his team’s second-highest run-scorer.

Over the past eight years, England have added a new dimension to the way ODIs can be played. And Bairstow, with his fearless stroke play, has been an embodiment of this brand of cricket.

In this World Cup, he bagged his 100th ODI cap in the second game, against Bangladesh.

“It’s a fantastic achievement for Jonny,” skipper Jos Buttler said. “He’s been a huge part of the one-day team for a really long period of time. The longevity he’s shown to play 100 caps is fantastic. He’s been one of the best openers in world cricket, in 50-over cricket, for a long time. He’s been a great servant for us and he’s got plenty more ahead of him as well. We’re delighted to have him in the team; he’s a fantastic player and his record shows that.”

As influential as Bairstow has been in England’s white-ball revolution, his numbers in the 50-over format in recent times have left a lot to be desired. The last of his 11 ODI centuries came in March 2021. While his career average is 44.52, it’s been 22.50 over the past two-and-a-half years.

Bairstow began this World Cup with 33 against New Zealand and hit a half-century against Bangladesh. In the loss to Afghanistan, he made just two runs.

“There’s a reason why the guys won the T20 World Cup last year; there’s a reason why the guys won the 2019 World Cup, and we’re the defending champions,” Bairstow was quoted as saying by ESPNcricinfo. “Just because we’ve lost a game to Afghanistan doesn’t make us bad cricketers or anything like that.”

Indeed, Bairstow and the rest of the players are more than capable of turning things around. But the margin for error is minimal. With the 2019 Cup-winning skipper Eoin Morgan having retired, and Ben Stokes due to play his first match only on Saturday (versus South Africa) due to a hip problem, and Buttler not at his best, England’s batting hasn’t looked half as intimidating as it used to be. For them to begin their title defence in earnest, Bairstow roaring back to form at the top of the order could be vital.

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