I was loitering down by the nets at the Grange cricket ground in Edinburgh on a June morning in 2008. I remember I was giving one of our batsmen wayward throwdowns and thinking anxiously about potential failure. I had pre-match nerves; those nerves that make it impossible to engage in an earnest conversation, throw the ball properly in the warm-up, or think about anything bar the first ball sailing down the leg side from a too-cocked wrist and a collapsing action – which “causes that unnaturally slingy action”, I could hear my coach saying.
We, Scotland U-19s, were to play the Yorkshire academy that day. It was the highest-level fixture that most of us, certainly I, had played in up until that point, and as a consequence we all felt ourselves nervous and preoccupied.
“Matty, look!” I remember my team-mate shouting, “Here they come, the opposition lads.”
And indeed they had: swaggering into the grounds with their kit bags and their confidence – both bigger than their fledging careers might have then justified – they had that air of aloofness, but not necessarily of condescension , which a more experienced team usually has over diminutive opposition. In comparison to my four years of cricket on the gurgling slurp of sodden Scottish outfields, these immaculately track-suited youths, six new stickered bats to each man, made me feel a little agricultural and messy.
Perhaps 20 minutes later, two Yorkshire players who had broken off from the main squadron came strutting towards the nets where some of us were still warming-up. One was tall and rangy, with dark brown long hair. He was wearing a cap and a sneer. The other was significantly shorter, almost lost in his tracksuit, with short blond hair. He wore braces and a metallic Milkybar kid grin.
Initially they commenced with some lazy batting drills and talked loudly so we might hear them. And indeed, it wasn’t long before they were interrupted by a few of the more confident and experienced members of our team.
The taller one introduced himself as Chris Allinson and the shorter one just said that his name was Joe. I do remember finding it strange at the time that one player should introduce himself thoroughly and the other not. Should I have heard of Chris Allinson? Obviously I should have no idea who “Joe” was.
A reel of anecdotes and names was spun off unnaturally early into the conversation:
“No, Sajid Mahmood isn’t that fast!”
“Yeah, I played Andrew Flintoff in a 2nd XI game”
“Yeah, I played for the England youth teams.”
When he had finished this barrage of self-aggrandising narratives, Allinson turned to the sheepish, peachy-skinned youth at his side and commenced with another salvo of superlatives. Joe had remained quiet – a series of blushing grins and non-committal shrugs standing in for his words – and did so even when Allinson continued chronicling his glories.
We were told Joe was the next best thing, “a verified run machine” and sure to play for England in the near future. He was sure to crack out another hundred against “you boys”. Joe still said nothing; he simply motioned to the guffawing Allinson that they should perhaps join the rest of the team for the warm-up.
After they had made their way to the other side of the ground, I think we were all left feeling a number of things. Some were sceptical about the boys’ proclamations, some were intimidated. I just felt intrigued by the facility of this “Joe” to shrug off such aggrandising accolades. Perhaps he just knew he was capable of doing what was said about him, and that he needed no exterior arrogance to compensate for the internal insecurity that most of us feel when placed in positions of authority.
We were sat on the first level of the tall, spindly Grange Pavilion, watching and talking about the game. Yorkshire had won the toss and had sent us into bat. Our openers where being subjected to some lively short-pitched bowling from the messy elasticity of their opening bowler, Michael Chadwick.
“See that guy over there, yeah, he’s the son of that England wicketkeeper who committed suicide. I think his name’s Bairstow,” someone told me.
“He’s meant to be really good, though, he’s played for the England youth teams,” he added in what seemed a truly crass and irritating non-sequitur.
As I looked on I didn’t know what I was supposed to see: a super-talented, melancholic glove-man catching and then collapsing in front of my eyes? How many times on different cricket fields by different players on different teams has that sentence been uttered; said over and over again behind Jonny Bairstow’s back, and thought over and over again in his presence?
Indeed, that’s the problem with these gossipy narratives: they occlude one’s ability to watch anyone play by making the reality seem somehow insubstantial. And so I would be lying if I were to be overly aggrandising or hyper-critical of the display I witnessed. What I saw was a wicketkeeper who caught the balls he was supposed to and didn’t drop the balls he wasn’t. Perhaps at times he appeared a little stiff and taut behind the stumps, and he certainly wasn’t predisposed to the garrulousness and inanity of the textbook keeper. Apart from that he just seemed good at what he was doing.
There is nothing quite as vindicating of praise as pulling the first ball of your innings, and indeed of the innings, for six. Standing at square leg, watching the ball sail 20 metres over my head, I can admit to swallowing a few cartoonish gulps of fear as I imagined what the next over, my over, might entail.
I got him to play and miss, I even got him to nod his head in appreciation of a few of my deliveries, but never did he make me feel convinced enough of my work that these near-misses amounted to a narrative culminating in his end
However, apart from that momentous swipe early on in the innings, there were no other acts of flashiness. Indeed, I have never known someone to score runs so insidiously – like a batter in baseball running for base just before the pitcher releases the ball. He never looked in trouble throughout his innings, but neither did he make it look as if he was finding it particularly easy. Blocks brought ones and twos, whilst nudges brought fours, and there were no more sixes that I can remember. I bowled the majority of my overs to him that day and at no point did I feel like I was bowling to the future England player Allinson had told us of, for he had none of that dominating flamboyance that one, whether rightly or not, equates with greatness.
Nonetheless, at no point did I feel like I was going to get him out. I got him to play and miss, I even got him to nod his head in appreciation of a few of my deliveries, but never did he make me feel convinced enough of my work that these near-misses amounted to a narrative culminating in his end. In a sense his total domination was passive, deceptive even, in that he always suggested the experiencing of a difficulty that he was not, in fact, experiencing. He relaxed us by seemingly negating his own threat, and in our resulting relaxation he took to scoring his runs. Indeed, true to Allison’s word, “Joe” verified his run-machine moniker and scored 122 not out against “us boys”.
Bairstow, on the other hand, seemed somehow more janitor-like in his no-nonsense way of clearing the mess other players made. He had come to the crease after a few quick wickets, and along with “Joe” put on a partnership of 88 runs. From his first forward-defensive against the spinner, he seemed resolute, his bat as wide as a barn door. His shape at the crease was boxy – his defence aggressive, his drives angular and his hands hard. He would whip the ball from outside off stump along the ground, through midwicket, with minimal effort, and he seemed capable of attacking almost all of the good balls we bowled.
He ran determinedly between the wickets – head down, shoulders hunched and legs pumping – as if he were untiring in his desire to finish the game. He seemed to function like an industrial machine; turning, churning, and producing results – the faster the better.
We played well that day and did a lot to improve our reputation just south of the border. However, put simply, we weren’t good enough. Together the combination of stealthy run-scoring and engineered strokeplay was a winning one. Though Bairstow was out caught 42 runs short of the total, “Joe” carried his bat to the finish and Yorkshire ended up beating us by six wickets.
The next I heard of them was when they made their Test debuts within a year of each other in 2012: Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow, England players.
Of course, it would be naïve of me to conjecture on their future from the basis of having played them in a youth game almost six years ago, and so I will not do so. The most important and interesting aspect of this story is that it provides an early marker for two careers that thus far have matched each other note for note, and for two players who have remained inseparable in achievement and failure.
Both were brought up in the youth system at Yorkshire and have played together for most of their youth careers. They continue to play for Yorkshire, where they remain central to its culture. In Test cricket, they debuted in the same year. They remain within one Test cap of each other – Bairstow has played 14 matches for England, whilst Root has played 15 – and now, both find themselves uncertain of selection.
In the near future, serious questions will be asked in the ECB’s offices, as they are being now in pubs throughout the country: is Bairstow good enough to be selected for England purely as a batsman? Is he capable as a wicketkeeper? Where do England see Root fitting in: should he open, bat at 3, 6, or not at all? The answers to these questions, and whether this career symmetry will last, are better answered by the course of time than by a few exploratory paragraphs. For now, let the story be more valuable than the speculation.