Prior has been a fine servant for England with bat and gloves these past five years but the despondency from supporters that Bairstow might have to take his place in next week’s opening Ashes Test places him on a higher plane in their eyes. Replacing him is going to take some doing.
“That’s the nature of the beast isn’t it,” said Bairstow. “Everyone is hoping Matt Prior is fit for English cricket. Who wouldn’t want him to be taking the stage at the Gabba in the first Test? But if it isn’t the case then it’s an opportunity to go out there and play for your country.”
Prior’s damaged left calf muscle, described as a low-grade tear after he injured it taking a quick single in Hobart, is on the mend. But apart from a broken finger, a calf problem is probably the worst injury for a keeper, who on a typical Test match day would squat down the rise at least 540 times. England will surely not risk him if there is the slightest doubt.
Bairstow’s may claim his preparation has been gestating for four years but it only really began in England’s current tour match at the Sydney Cricket Ground and, on the evidence so far presented, there is still work to do.
A natural athlete, he took a fine catch off Stuart Broad in the first innings to get rid of Ryan Carters, who top-scored for the hosts with 94. Earlier though, he had dropped Kurtis Patterson on nought down the leg-side off Broad, the kind of chance that needs to be taken when Australia’s batsmen present them.
It was catchable, too, as they often are down the leg-side in Australia due to the extra bounce in the pitches here. Bairstow was slow to move and, when he did, looked leaden-footed, though an outfield this sandy would probably make Nureyev look clumsy. He also shelled a few regulation takes off Broad and Steven Finn that did not find the edge, more evidence that match cricket is always messier than practice.
Prior had suspect footwork when he first played for England and dropped catches as a result, so it is nothing new to have a keeper-batsmen needing to improve his glovework. Eventually he was dropped for Tim Ambrose, but he forced himself to become a better keeper, an ongoing process he will tell you, and won his place back.
Prior’s batting has been an important component in England’s recent success, though he had a poor Ashes series last summer, scoring 133 runs in five Tests at an average of 19. There was a sense too that Clarke and Australia’s bowlers had worked him out, setting extra men in the area between the slips and cover, then bowling to his perceived strength there and getting him caught.
During that series Bairstow actually fared better, making 203 runs at 29, but not good enough to persuade the selectors not to drop him for the final Test of the series.
Bairstow’s batting in this match has been decent enough so far and he enjoyed a 106-run stand with Joe Root. But two runs short of his half-century, he edged Chris Tremain to the keeper trying to force one off the back foot that was too close to his body.
Like Prior, he is best when counter-attacking but a few low scores for England have made him a more reluctant aggressor. If he does take the gloves in Brisbane, having that second string could ease the pressure and help him to rediscover it.
England fans might fret about the prospect of Bairstow keeping in next week’s Test but if Prior does not recover in time he is the only option. There are keepers in England with better hands (Michael Vaughan said their were five better than him) and possibly one that is superior with the bat (Jos Buttler) who might have been in the mix for selection here.
But it was Bairstow who got the nod for this tour and deserves everybody’s backing now should Prior not make it.