Jonny Bairstow tops Wisden’s Test innings of the year list for his extraordinary 136 on the final day against New Zealand at Trent Bridge. Yas Rana looks back at the knock that kickstarted an incredible run of form.

Jonny Bairstow 136 (92)

England vs New Zealand
Trent Bridge, Nottingham
10-14 June, 2022

“Surely it’ll be a draw,” a colleague said to me at tea with England needing another 160 runs. It was a reasonable prediction. Just the previous year against the same opponents, England opted against chasing 270 from 70 overs. And while the win at Lord’s the previous week halted a miserable run of results, it didn’t feel like things had changed that much.

A one-paced England bowling attack dominated an undercooked opposition in favourable early summer conditions. They then struggled with the bat, only for Joe Root to bail them out. It was a welcome victory and its manner was refreshing with Root scoring briskly to wrap up the chase before the second new ball became available, but that was all it was – refreshing, certainly not revolutionary.

There was no sense of unfamiliarity over the first day and a half at Trent Bridge either. New Zealand piled on 553 as every England bowler conceded their runs at more than three and a half runs per over, except James Anderson who took 3-62 from 27 overs. On a flat pitch England were far from penetrative; the win was seemingly off the cards.

England batted positively in response. Centuries from Root and Ollie Pope almost brought England up to parity and the message was clear – we’re going for the win. It was the framework for what was to follow in Pakistan later in the year; if you score quickly enough, no pitch can stop you from winning.

Fast forward to the final day and England were left needing 299 to win from a little more than two sessions. Alex Lees, who looked bereft of run-scoring options in the Caribbean earlier in the year, memorably set the tone by taking 12 runs off the first four deliveries of the innings; but when Joe Root was brilliantly caught by Trent Boult off his own bowling, England were behind the required rate and New Zealand three wickets away from England’s extremely vulnerable tail.

After the carnage that followed, it’s easy to forget that Jonny Bairstow went into the tea interval 43 off 49 deliveries after a period of relative consolidation. As Lees shut up shop from one end, Bairstow kept at it from the other. When Lees departed and Ben Stokes came in to replace him, there was pressure on the New Zealand bowlers from both ends. Stokes hit Tim Southee over his head for six off his tenth ball at the crease and it was clear that once more, that there was only one possible result that England were entertaining in their minds..

A hundred and sixty were left in the chase. At tea, Bairstow was having a cheese toastie with his coffee when Stokes told him, “don’t even think about hitting it down, just plant it in the stands.” And after letting the first ball after tea travel through to the wicketkeeper, Bairstow by and large listened to his captain.

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Bairstow ruthlessly targeted the short boundary, anything short of length was handsomely deposited into the stands. England (mainly Bairstow) took 59 off the first four overs after tea, it was total carnage. The only hint of relenting came as Bairstow approached his century, going seven balls without finding the ropes or stands.

The hundred was brought up after 77 balls before the part-time off-spin of Michael Bracewell was dismissively dealt with the following over. By the time he was dismissed on 136, the result was effectively sealed. A chase that would have been implausible a year before and an improbable just an hour previously was sealed with ease. Bairstow hit 93 off 43 balls after lunch. There have been few onslaughts like it in the history of the game. Neither have there been many bursts of form quite like it either.

The England team under Stokes and McCullum has been the subject of its fair share of armchair psychotherapy from the public since they took charge of the Test side. While they have unlocked previously untapped talent that had before been locked away, there is cold, hard logic and a simplicity behind their cricketing philosophy.

Jonny Bairstow is one of the best hitters of a cricket ball England has ever produced. He is one of a handful of modern day batters to have been, at various points in his career, one of the best Test and white-ball players in the world. So simply, England encouraged him to hit the ball, urging him to make the most of his brilliant ball-striking that he regularly exhibits in white-ball cricket.

As T20 cricket has grown, pundits, often with a smug sense of superiority about how cricket was harder in their day, have pointed out the decline in defensive techniques among Test batters. Defensive techniques and assuredness around off stump might not be what they once were, but neither is the armoury of shots at the disposal of multi-format players. They can apply pressure to bowlers in a way previous generations – with the odd notable exception – were simply not capable of. Led by Bairstow, England have shown what the modern player is capable of Test cricket, and never quite as emphatically as they did on that final evening at Trent Bridge. In years to come, Bairstow’s knock at Trent Bridge and Rishabh Pant’s antics in Australia in 2020/21 may be reflected on as innings that signalled a change in how the format could be played by the modern player.

It was the first of five England hundreds in 2022 struck at a quicker than a run a ball. Stokes and McCullum rightly receive plaudits for having the vision for what this set of players is capable of, but if this England team were a new band that had taken the world by storm, Jonny Bairstow is the frontman, turning the writing of McCullum and Stokes into reality. And in a year of hits, his performance at Trent Bridge was the truest smash.