England’s T20 World Cup title defence is teetering on the edge of disaster after a heavy loss to Australia. Defeat in either of their last two group games will mean an early exit from the competition, while even two victories may not be enough to conquer the net run rate mountain they need to overcome. 

Should they fail to qualify for the Super Eights, they will have gone from the top of the white-ball world to back-to-back World Cup humiliations in 18 months. 

The most glaring example of England’s problems visible against Australia was Jonny Bairstow’s dispiriting innings. When Bairstow came in, England needed 110 runs to win off 61 balls. A tall order, but with how much power England have packed into their batting lineup it was not impossible. Over the course of the 13 balls he faced, however, Bairstow took the chase from still just within the realms of plausibility, to out of reach.

At his best, Bairstow is swashbuckling and arrogant, short-arm jabs his bread and butter, the leg-side his playground. But on this occasion, the timing wasn’t there - nor the simplicity. Bairstow’s greatest innings look like they require no thought whatsoever, but the cogs whirring behind the eyes became more obvious with every slog he missed. 

After he holed out for seven, the momentum England had built in the powerplay was gone, and the chase followed suit from there. While their problems are numerous and Bairstow’s innings just a fleeting part of the loss, the innings should give Matthew Mott and co. plenty to think about, both in hindsight and going forward.

Coming into this tournament, England boasted a raft of players who'd made runs in the IPL. Will Jacks was still basking in the glow of praise from Virat Kohli for his latest and best franchise league century, Jos Buttler scored two hundreds in the season, and Phil Salt was half of KKR’s tournament-defining opening partnership. Bairstow had a mixed season, but the century he blasted in a record chase set worries aside that he still had it. While it was acknowledged these runs were scored on postage-stamp grounds and run-fest wickets, that innings was a signal that another wasn't far beneath the surface. However, that he was dropped during the tournament was more in keeping with his longer-term struggles in the format and beyond.

Bairstow’s T20I appearances over the last couple of years have been sporadic, as they have for many of England's other premier T20 players. Having not featured in the 2022 T20 World Cup, he returned for four games against New Zealand days before flying to India for the 50-over title defence. A swashbuckling classic 86 off 60 balls announced his return, with a 73 off 41 the following week confirming his spot back into the elite. Between that time and flying out to the Caribbean, Bairstow played just two T20Is, both against Pakistan the week before the start of the tournament. That period was also filled by a poor World Cup campaign and Test series of India, which bridged the gap to the IPL season.

The other crucial factor to consider is that both those scores against New Zealand came as an opener. Like the majority of T20 players, opening is Bairstow’s best position, and England have so many options to open up that any of their top four could comfortably come out up top. While that ensures a lineup full of power and potential for huge totals, the key to making the best all-round team with those similar pieces is pushing the most adaptable down. Bairstow is renowned as one of England’s stronger spin-hitters, hence why he has often been the one demoted - No.4 is the position he has batted at most frequently in T20Is. In all formats, he has seen his role changed time and again to fit the demands of the team, often to his detriment. It can be argued that this is another such example.

He had been set to make his way back up to open for the 2022 T20 World Cup, before a broken leg ruled him out. Alex Hales was given the nod to return over Jason Roy and Salt, and his retirement seemed to open the door for Bairstow to open again. But the only slot for him to come back once Salt forced his way back up top in the Caribbean last December was in the middle order. 

It would be wrong to suggest Bairstow has been an outright failure at second-drop. He averages slightly more at No.4 than he does as opener, while scoring slightly slower. That is partially down to him not being given the powerplay to exploit, but the feeling is growing that whil Bairstow is one of the best there is at setting the tone early and finding that flying start, he's not as adept at starting during the middle overs and kicking on at the end. What's made him so successful is being able to start hard and sustain from ball one, not build or rescue an innings.

Gone are the days where most sides look to include an out-and-out ‘anchor’, sacrificing quick starts for stability. But there still needs to be a balance between a middle order full of firepower and those able to fill both roles, adapting to tricky conditions and situations when needed. Ben Stokes was England’s trump card in this respect, but without him, they’ve had to go for power, and hope Bairstow’s experience and Brook’s talent would fill that hole. 

To Bairstow, it may feel like every time England are in trouble the finger points to him, and that’s not completely unreasonable. He frequently finds himself in the action during the most crucial moments of matches, across formats, and is often asked to pull off what seems to be impossible. This time, England have got themselves into a muddle with their XI which is going to be difficult to solve. 

Unless they decide to trust what they’ve gone with, against lesser opposition in Namibia and Oman, trying something different probably means substantial change. They could bring Ben Duckett into the middle order to break up the right-handers, and either move Bairstow back up or stick with their current top three. Whatever they decide to do, it’s backs against the wall time, and we all know how Bairstow’s responded to those in the past when given the opportunity to fire back.

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