His father's 'keeper: The inspirational story of Jonny Bairstow

Jonny Bairstow's new book begins like you expect a batsman's memoir might: with him on 99 and on the verge of his first Test century. Except this isn't your run-of-the-mill stocking-filler memoir. It isn't only jubilation and relief that rush through him with the boundary that completes his hundred in Cape Town, but as he looks skyward, sadness as well.

It is the first week of January 2016. Only days from the anniversary of the date in 1998 when an eight-year-old Bairstow arrived home from football training with his mother Janet and sister Becky to find his father David, the former England wicketkeeper, had taken his own life. That impending maiden ton and the celebration is put into brutal perspective.

Eventually the noise of the crowd dies away, and I think of starting my innings again. But first I take one last look at the sky. If heaven has a pub, I hope my dad is in it now. I hope he's ordering a pint to celebrate. Then I hope he orders another.


Bairstow is on the phone from England days before the departure of Joe Root's squad for Australia. He's been talking about his father a lot lately.

Nearly 20 years after his death - that anniversary will fall on January 5, the second day of the fifth Ashes Test in Sydney - England's wicketkeeper-batsman has chronicled at length the life of his family since. How his mother raised him and his sister while enduring two battles with cancer. How his much-loved and widely admired father, an outwardly "confident and lively" character, had kept his demons inside. And the questions that continue to linger.

The primary reason for the book, A Clear Blue Sky, and its timing, the 28-year-old Yorkshireman says, is to endeavour to help and inspire others facing their own difficulties.

"Sometimes people keep it all in and, yes, it was very difficult to talk about at times," Bairstow tells Fairfax Media. "But if you get somebody to open up about that, get someone to realise it's actually OK to talk about that, OK to talk to a loved one, a brother, a sister, a mum, whatever it may be ... surely that can only help in some way.

"At this point in my career it's about having an impact on people, whether that be young kids and inspiring them to pull through potentially a tough time that they've had in their earlier life. Or whether it's a teenager who's been told they're not good enough, whether that's to play Aussie rules, rugby league or cricket, and actually pursuing that dream to say 'yeah, actually I am'."

Bairstow admits "there were bits that were interesting" in recounting his father's death and the circumstances that surrounded it. He tells in the book how the coroner had recorded an open verdict, "as certain as he could be that my Dad hadn't meant to die". The coroner's conclusion was that his father was making another cry for help, after an attempt a few weeks earlier, and thought he would be rescued. Due to a series of innocent delays, Bairstow and his mother and sister arrived home from Leeds United juniors 30 minutes later than they had expected that day.

It can't have been easy to get those words down but for Bairstow it was important to lay out his journey in its entirety.

"Things were said 20 years ago this January in the press about what actually happened that didn't happen," he says. "Twenty years on there has been a hell of a lot of things that have happened. That's one of the things I wanted to get out of doing the book, the fact that Mum has literally brought up two kids whilst being very poorly twice. Hopefully we're now making her very proud."

There seems little doubt that is the case and five years and 45 Tests into his England career you can only imagine his father would be immensely proud of Bairstow too.

In Australia, many may remember him surprisingly being given the gloves for the Boxing Day Test four years ago when England wicketkeeper Matt Prior was dropped with the tourists 3-0 down and the series gone.

It wasn't his first taste of the Ashes arena - having featured as a batsman in four of the five Tests against Australia in England earlier in 2013 - but it was a rude awakening. Then 24, Bairstow said in Melbourne there was not a team in the world that could handle such a hostile Mitchell Johnson. He maintains now that Johnson was virtually unstoppable. "Credit where credit is due," he says.

As a 'keeper, though, the performance of Brad Haddin against England that summer made just as lasting an impression for Bairstow. The Australians barely put down a catch behind the stumps or in the slips and the seasoned wicketkeeper drained the spirit out of the tourists with his exploits with the bat.

When tools were finally downed in Sydney after a series whitewash was complete it was Haddin who Bairstow sidled up to.

"He basically showed me in so many ways about how to keep, how to bat," Bairstow says. "I spoke to him at the end of the series about his experiences in this that and the other and I found it fascinating."

Bairstow will hope that he is not walking to the middle with the bat this summer having to drag England out of danger repeatedly but if the tourists' top order does fail they at least arrive with a side that has runs in it a long way down the order.

That attribute is even more pronounced if Ben Stokes is in the XI. The England vice-captain, however, won't be getting off the plane in Perth when Root's squad lobs in the country this weekend. He remains suspended while police investigate a fight outside a Bristol nightclub last month

Bairstow has known Stokes since he was 15 and it was the all-rounder who was at the other end on that emotional day last year in South Africa when he reached three figures. The absence of Stokes would be a major setback for England and while Bairstow isn't about to argue that point the presence of Moeen Ali and Chris Woakes in England's lower order below him means they bat deep regardless.

"No one knows what's going on ... literally what you've heard is what everyone else has heard," he says of the Stokes situation. "We still don't know if Stokes is going to come. There is a chance he could come ... when he comes, nobody knows. But at the same time if you look at six, seven, eight ... myself, Moeen, Woakesy ... you've still got around 35 to 40 first-class hundreds in there. You look at it that way, and you put Stokesy in there, you've got over 50 hundreds at six, seven, eight, nine. That is something we have is depth there. But at the same time we also know that's something as a side we can't rely on."

While there is no Johnson to concern themselves with this time around Bairstow is well aware of the ability of Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins to give batsmen and the speed gun a workout. Both those two are eager to try to emulate Johnson this summer, as lofty an ambition as that is.

"They've got things in their attack that can cause people a lot of problems," Bairstow says. "So we're not delusional about the challenges and the strength of the Australian attack.

"But ... we've got guys in our batting line-up like Alastair Cook, who's scored the most Test runs for England and Rooty, who's still only 26 and averaging 55 with the bat."

However, it pans out you get the impression Bairstow will be soaking up every moment of it. His father never had the fortune to play in an Ashes series, although he did take on Australia in the 1980 Centenary Test. This will be Bairstow's fourth.

"It doesn't just captivate England, it doesn't just captivate Australia, it captivates cricket-playing nations around the world," Bairstow says.

"Cricket people, whether that's in America, in Canada ... no matter where it is, people that know about their cricket will be tuning in. That's what so fascinating about the whole thing."

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This story His father's 'keeper: The inspirational story of Jonny Bairstow first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.