Jonny Bairstow at 100 caps: A century of spirit and resilience

Jonny Bairstow enhances the Dharamsala backdrop Getty Images

It will be 150 days between Jonny Bairstow's 100th ODI cap and his 100th in Tests this Thursday for the final match of England's tour of India. Both will have come in Dharamsala, which feels particularly apt.

This, after all, is a vibrant town teeming with lost souls desperate to find themselves. There is an unavoidable spirituality to the place, whether you believe in such things or not. Its roads wind awkwardly towards the summit of the Himalayas, featuring constant flirtations with obstacles - bleating or otherwise - and cliff edges that either stymy your progress or put you off altogether. All punctuated by flashes of jaw-dropping wonder.

For Bairstow, 100 ODIs were a recognition of brilliance. The 100 Tests, however, are a measure of spirit. He will join 16 other Englishman to have reached that mark, including Ben Stokes who got there last month. With all due respect to them, few, if any, have wanted it more. And only when you start to unpack that assertion do you really get a sense of the "who" and "why" of Bairstow, and "what" he has meant to English cricket.

This, after all, was the kid given first dibs on the Test scene among his long-standing peers - six months before Joe Root, 18 before Stokes. Root was to be the reliable runscorer, Stokes the explosive character. Bairstow was deemed to be both.

The debut series against West Indies at the start of the 2012 summer came and went. But it was his fourth cap, at Lord's against South Africa, that got people dreaming of what this furious 21-year-old could become. A brutal 95 gave England a slim first-innings lead against the most complete attack of the modern era. A 54 in the second threatened an unlikely chase. All while one of the best English Test teams in generations was in the early stages of collapsing in on itself.

The numbers show that Bairstow's early promise did not come to fruition. Of the English Test batters in the 100-cap bracket, his average of 36.42 is the lowest. Even if he does mark the occasion with a 13th century - who could rule that out? - that figure too will be lowest among the select few, with Ian Botham just in front on 14.

At the same time, Bairstow has found himself at the vanguard of the English game in two very different eras, like a havoc-wreaking time traveller. In 2016, he set calendar year records for the most runs by any wicketkeeper of any nationality (1,470) and affected more dismissals (70) than the lot of them. Six years later in 2022, his four centuries and 681 runs in a single summer launched a thrilling cult.

Had Bairstow not been English, with such a volume of Test cricket available to him, he might not have had a chance to reach this landmark. Through reasons pertaining to form, role and injury, he has missed 51 Tests since debuting almost 12 years ago. By contrast, Kane Williamson, who debuted in November 2010, will only reach his century in the second Test against Australia next week, having missed just 11.

There have been a few "what if" moments along the way. A tough period averaging 27.98 against the red ball between 2017 and 2019 coincided with a three-year run in which he cemented his status as a generational white-ball opener, with nine ODI hundreds among 2,403 runs scored at a strike rate of 108.24. The scales of technique balanced too far one way, in particular his propensity to open up his stance for those powerplay launches through the covers, but Bairstow is a world champion for it.

The severe leg break at the end of the 2022 summer that required nine pins and a wire going through his ankle cost him six Tests, nine months and perhaps a shot at legendary status. As for the wicketkeeping conundrum - how long have you got?

The battle for the gloves has been a constant sticking point, and Bairstow has worn each snub personally. Most chastening was at the start of the 2018 season, when national selector Ed Smith made the understandable decision to shoehorn Jos Buttler into the side. Soon enough, Buttler was keeping.

The jostling with Ben Foakes has been a different dynamic. Foakes is one of the best glovemen England have ever been able to call on, but with enough lacking in his batting to allow Bairstow to seize his role last summer upon his return from injury. Chances were missed, the Ashes were drawn, and there are many who reasonably equate the two together. It is also true that England's indecision means none of the three have done themselves justice.

The link between Bairstow's desire to keep wicket and his late father is unavoidable. David Bairstow also performed the role for Yorkshire and England, and the similarities between the two are particularly striking. From the eyes, Jonny carrying forward David's nickname, "Bluey", to their approach to the game. Cricket writer David Hopps described Bairstow senior's batting as "chest-juttingly confrontational, as if forever driven forth by an imagined slight, from a selector or a southerner, a team-mate or a journalist". He may as well have been talking about Jonny.

Of course, not all of Jonny's slights have been imagined, and few have perfected the "F*** you!" knock with such vendetta-ridden precision. Right down to staring down entire press boxes, leaving those within them grateful of the thick glass, but unsure if he might proceed to hack away at the foundations with his bat.

That rage, fleeting as it is, stems from a long-held belief that people do not rate his talents, which could not be further from the truth. But the idea that he is fuelled by proving people wrong, even his team-mates' occasional comments that winding him up before sending him out onto the field gets the best out of him, is a tad reductive. He is a player unwittingly defined by broad extrapolations.

The tragedy of David's suicide - Jonny, aged eight, returned home to find him with his mother, Janet, and sister, Becky - is often linked to an emotional yet bloody-minded career. But it has been one cultivated by love, thanks to an incredibly tightknit family, held together by Janet.

Her strength through it all, especially two battles with breast cancer - the first at the time of David's passing - has made Jonny the man he is. Thursday's celebrations will be alongside those loved ones, which now include his partner Megan and their first child, along with a throng of close friends. No doubt when the cap presentation takes place, there will be a look to the heavens, as there was nine years ago in Cape Town after that maiden Test century, towards the one who cannot be there. Even thousands of miles away from home, home will be right there with him.

It would be foolish not to entertain the sentimentality of all this. Appreciating the emotion of Bairstow has always been the quickest route to knowing the person. He craves reassurance, a vulnerability McCullum saw first-hand early in his tenure when, a week after striking 136 off 92 deliveries against New Zealand at Trent Bridge, Bairstow asked his coach how he should approach the next innings. McCullum scoffed at the mere idea of doing anything differently, ordering him to sit next to him and go through his Sudoku book to keep out of his own head.

Such comfort-giving has not been a one-way street. The first of Bairstow's 12 Test hundreds came in the midst of a 399-run stand with Stokes, who finished on a career-best 258 from 198 balls and still credits his partner's role in allowing him to go wilder than he ever thought possible. It's not for nothing that Stokes acknowledges the touchpaper for his 2019 epic at Headingley was lit in the 86-run stand with Bairstow that had the hero of that piece as second-fiddle. Would Bazball even be a thing without Bairstow?

Even as someone who wears disappointment so personally, Bairstow remains acutely aware of the things that count. Team-mates closest to him note how perceptive he is to their moods, particularly when they are not quite themselves and in need of a pick-up.

When Bairstow had a scheduling conflict with a close friend's wedding in Chepstow and Mark Wood's in Northumberland, he saw no conflict at all. After the first celebration, Bairstow left south-east Wales at 1am, driving through the night to the north-east of England, arriving at 6:30am, getting an hour's sleep before freshening up and donning a new suit for his team-mate's big day.

He is generous, too, whether hosting barbecues on the eve of Headingley internationals stocked with all the meat, booze and cigars you could want, or gifting souvenirs to fans, whether gloves, bats or simply time. On many occasions on this tour of India, he has broken security protocol and indulged local fans and hotel staff with selfies.

None of this changes the fact we are in the endgame of Bairstow as a Test cricketer. This is a number's game in a high-performance industry, and at the back-end of a challenging series, this England team may need to move on to reach the next level.

Even so, Bairstow joins an exclusive club having given so much to so many. He has been responsible for the kind of days England fans will hold dear forever. He has even contributed with absurdities ranging from bumping heads with Cameron Bancroft - one of the more hilariously overblown Ashes stoushes - to carrying off a Just Stop Oil protestor at Lord's under one arm. All while treating Test cricket and his career with a heart that resonates the world over.

Jonny Bairstow is, and always will be, a protagonist of English cricket at a time when it was thrilling and still trying to work out what it wanted to be. And when he has finished, when those who grew with him have grown old too, there may be some sadness that the memories Bairstow elicited were locked in those moments.

His part in that journey will, ultimately, be his legacy. You cannot argue against the numbers but, geez, you just had to be there. To experience the best of him, and how he stirred souls simply by doing something he loved.

Fundamentally, is that not what life, let alone cricket, is all about?