FROM HIGH hopes to high farce.
It did not take long for England’s Ashes campaign to undergo the sort of transformation it could have well done without.
Having had Australia 209-7 on day three in reply to their own first innings score of 302, England somehow contrived to lose the first Test in Brisbane by 10 wickets.
As if that was not enough, the game at the Gabba ended with England fending off questions relating to Jonny Bairstow having apparently headbutted Australia’s Cameron Bancroft at a bar in Perth earlier in the tour.
It was, all parties agreed, an overblown affair that was nowhere near as bad as it sounded – a storm in a Yorkshire teacup, for want of a better term.
By all accounts, it appears to have involved some “banter” at the bar which somehow metamorphosed into a major news item.
In a nutshell, it is said that Bairstow greeted Bancroft with a playful headbutt – something of an oxymoron, some might say – which its recipient insisted contained “no malice”.
As Bancroft put it, “a handshake or a hug would have been something I would have probably expected more than a headbutt”, and “Jonny Bairstow says hello to people very differently to most others”.
However, the pair continued drinking and there is no question of any assault having taken place; if it had, it would not have taken four weeks for the matter to materialise.
Bairstow – who ECB board director Andrew Strauss said on Monday night will face no disciplinary action over the incident – would have been on the first plane home, and England would not be talking in terms of mountains and molehills.
Although the comedic element is difficult to resist, with Bancroft even asked in the post-match press conference to define, “on a scale of one to 10”, the strength of the headbutt he received, in what remained an unsuccessful effort to picture the blow, the laughs are on England as they move on to Adelaide for the second Test that begins on Saturday.
With Australia captain Steve Smith admitting that “headbutt-gate” was designed to unsettle Bairstow on the field (it only entered the public domain via a stump microphone as Australia tried to put him off his game by reminding him of it in England’s second innings), the hosts will hope there is a wider impact on the rest of the series.
For, coming just weeks after Ben Stokes was filmed aiming a barrage of punches in a Bristol street, it is publicity that England could have well done without – its timing, as much as its tenor, eliciting criticism.
The best thing that Bairstow can do now is to wipe the smiles off Australia’s faces in the best way possible – by scoring a shed-load of runs and by continuing to keep wicket with consummate skill.Chris Waters
Michael Vaughan, the former England captain, said that he could “not understand why you would greet someone like that”, while ex-England pace bowler Jonathan Agnew said that England’s players are “effectively grounded” after Bairstow’s “act of silliness”, with a midnight curfew imposed on the team.
Smith, who could be seen giggling uncontrollably alongside Bancroft in the post-match press conference in Brisbane, like a schoolboy hearing for the first time about the birds and the bees, knows that Australia have landed an opportunistic punch – not quite on a par with the punch of his own match-winning century, perhaps, but one that is an avoidable annoyance to the touring team.
Whether Australia deliberately raised the incident in the hope that it would be picked up by the stump microphones only they will know.
But they did not exactly seem too unhappy about events after extending their unbeaten Test record at the Gabba to 29 years; in fact, they were clearly enjoying them.
For Bairstow, the only response is to take it all on the chin and to accept that it will doubtless be the subject of ribbing from team-mates and opponents for quite some time.
“Hopefully, now we can swipe this underneath the table, continue what’s going to be a fantastic and exciting series and we move on from there,” he said yesterday in a short and sweet statement.
Alas, human nature – and certainly that of competitive sportsmen – is rarely so obliging.
The best thing that Bairstow can do now is to wipe the smiles off Australia’s faces in the best way possible – by scoring a shed-load of runs and by continuing to keep wicket with consummate skill.
He is a wonderful cricketer and well capable of helping England to turn the series around; the brouhaha will be forgotten a lot faster if he excels on the field.
To that effect, it would help him if England did not bat him as low as No 7. With due respect to Alastair Cook, now in the twilight of a magnificent career, what is the point of having your second-best batsman at No 7?
Bairstow is someone who can assist with arguably England’s most pressing problem: that of turning promising starts into sizeable innings.
In my view, he should bat no lower than No 5.
After two failures in Brisbane, Cook urgently needs runs in Adelaide, while Joe Root will hope to follow Smith’s example as he attempts to convert more fifties into hundreds.
If England are going to hit back after defeat at the Gabba, they simply must score more runs and plenty of them.
Bairstow is the sort of X-factor player who can rise to that challenge and will doubtless be more fired-up after recent events.