Jonny Bairstow says that the pleasure of sealing victory in the first Test at Galle makes the hardships of life in the England bubble worthwhile, after he and Dan Lawrence soothed the team’s jitters on the final morning of the first Test to seal an emphatic seven-wicket victory over Sri Lanka.
Bairstow, back in the Test side for the first time in more than a year, impressed in both innings, with a hard-fought 47 on the first day, and an unbeaten 35 on the fifth, as he withstood the threat of Sri Lanka’s spinners – in particular Lasith Embuldeniya – in an unbroken 62-run stand for the fourth wicket.
And while it’s early days in his return to Test cricket, the confidence and proactivity shown by Bairstow on a wearing pitch augurs well for the rest of a tough winter schedule, starting with Friday’s second Test, also at Galle, and moving swiftly on into four Tests in India.
“We saw yesterday a lot more balls were raising off a length, there were some chunks coming out just over the five-foot mark,” Bairstow said in the moments after hitting the winning boundary for England. “It was tricky, so I think the big decision was just being precise in your movements. We saw going forward and really stretching, it was bouncing.”
Bairstow’s sixth and most recent Test century also came while batting at No. 3 in Sri Lanka, in the third Test in Colombo two winters ago, and his tally of 82 runs for once out in this contest lifts his overall average from 13 Tests in Asia to 37.63, a higher figure than his overall mark of 35.14.
Though his return to the team came about, in part, due to some notable absentees – most particularly Ben Stokes, rested for this leg of the winter, but also Ollie Pope, who is currently recovering from a shoulder injury – Bairstow’s proven ability against spin could yet make him a key part of England’s line-up for the remainder of the winter.
Even so, he might have been run out early in his innings, after taking off for an unwise single moments after his captain, Joe Root, had departed in the same manner. But thereafter Bairstow exuded confidence, both in his own game, and in that of his young batting partner, Lawrence, who finished an outstanding debut on 21 not out to go with his first-innings 73.
Asked what advice he had offered his team-mate when play resumed on the final morning, Bairstow said: “Look, you need 36 runs. I think that’s the that’s the be-all and end-all of it, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter how you get there. You just need to score the runs and, on a pitch like that, I think if you’re not proactive, if you’re not looking to score in your areas, then I think there’s going to be a good ball that comes your way.
“That was the mindset, to go out and be busy, running between the wickets is a huge a huge part of it, especially over here with the outfields being slightly slower. Just making sure that we’re pressing them in the field, and running hard.”
The win is England’s fourth in a row in Asia, dating back to their 3-0 win on the last tour of Sri Lanka, and their fourth in a row overseas, following a trio of wins in South Africa last winter, a feat that England have not achieved since the 1950s. And Bairstow was delighted, not just for himself, but for the whole team that has had to adapt its preparations to cope with the restrictions of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It’s absolutely fantastic,” he said. “It’s difficult when you come to the subcontinent. You know the challenges that you’re going to have, but to get a win on the board in the first game, with a pretty short lead-up to be quite honest, is pleasing for all the boys.
“Rooty in the first innings, Bessy with the ball in the first innings, Leachy in the second innings, and the efforts that the fast bowlers put in as well, I think a huge amount of credit has to go to them.
“They properly toiled away, Sam [Curran] got that early breakthrough, there was Broady too in the first innings with his legcutters, and then someone like Woody. I mean, the hard toil that he’s put in there, running in and really making it uncomfortable, it puts people on the back foot to try and exploit other options at the other end, so a huge amount of credit goes to those guys.
“It’s been tricky,” he added, when asked about adapting to life inside the England bubble. “I was happy that the Christmas break came around because I think I had about six nights at home since the beginning of August.
“It’s tough, I’m not to lie about it. It’s something that does take its toll, because you are going from hotel to the cricket ground and back to the hotel, and unfortunately the guys are not able to see their families, kids, wives, girlfriends over long periods of time.
“The lads have all got addicted to Call of Duty, but it’s the Skype chats with people back home who have been with you through thick and thin that keep you going, and it’s wins like this, and moments like this, that really make it even more special when you’re away from home so much.”
England may well rotate their options with the second Test getting underway in just four days’ time. James Anderson is likely to come into the side, potentially to give Broad a rest, while Olly Stone is a possibility to replace Wood, whose extra pace was a welcome asset in the first Test, but whose injury record invites caution when it comes to back-to-back Tests.
Root, England’s captain, said the management would use their extra day of rest to assess their options, but paid his own tribute to the efforts of Bairstow and Lawrence in smoothing the team’s path to victory.
“That’s exactly what you want to see as captain, guys getting opportunities and really taking them in both hands,” he said. “For a young guy like Dan to come in and play with such maturity, such a calm nature, and to be put in that situation last night and handle it how he did was really impressive for a guy making his debut,
“And it’s really pleasing for Jonny as well. I think both innings showed this class, showed he’s got a very good game against spin, and a very good game for Test cricket. It’s lovely to see them both perform so well and start the winter really strongly.
“It is great to know that, with a number of guys being rested and out currently, guys are coming into those positions and there is that strength there, and we’re building all the time as a group and as a squad. That’s what you want to see and hopefully that continues moving forward.”
Both Bairstow and Root also paid tribute to Rob Lewis, the lone England fan on the fort at Galle, who had stayed in Sri Lanka when the last tour in March had to be postponed due to the Covid outbreak, and who ended up being a rare witness to England’s achievement, seeing as even the travelling media and most of the match commentators have been covering the game remotely.
“It’s an incredible story,” Root said, after speaking on the phone with Lewis in the wake of the victory. “To see him struggle to get on the fort the first couple of days, then finally up there enjoying himself and getting to watch some cricket was fantastic. All of the guys really appreciate him being there and the support we get from everyone that comes and watches us. He was almost a beacon for everyone at home watching on the screens.
“We are very lucky to get the support we do everywhere in the world. It was nice that at the end of the game I managed to have a little conversation with him over the phone. It’s a really interesting story and it was lovely for him to enjoy that moment with the rest of the group.”
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @miller_cricket