When Ben Stokes arrived in Bloemfontein in mid-January 2015, to link up with an England Lions squad that already included Jonny Bairstow, the prospect of both being recognised among Wisden’s five Cricketers for the Year had to be considered remote.
Stokes had been overlooked for England’s squad for the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, a decision that provoked plenty of criticism, but with which he had few quibbles after failing to nail down his place in the one-day series in Sri Lanka before Christmas.
Bairstow had not played international cricket since the last Test of the disastrous Ashes tour of 2013-14 – and even the Lions tour was a slightly frustrating experience for him, as he was unable to nail the big score that would have sent a message to the England selectors.
But by the time they returned to South Africa at the end of 2015, the pair – who have more in common than their hair colour as feisty characters and naturally aggressive batsmen, even if they are far from peas in a pod – were established in England’s Test team.
Then came Cape Town, and a partnership that will always bond them together.
The Proteas couldn’t say they hadn’t been warned. Soon after arriving on that Lions tour for the one-day matches against South Africa A, Stokes had hammered an unbeaten 151 from 86 balls on a memorable day in the Pretoria township of Mamelodi – with at least one of his 15 sixes having to be retrieved from the Mamelodi River running outside the ground.
The opposition that day included Chris Morris and Dean Elgar, who were also in the opposition at Cape Town – and Bairstow had played a low-profile supporting role in a fourth-wicket stand of 92. Sound familiar?
Stokes did enough on that Lions tour to secure his place for the three-Test series in West Indies, where he first exchanged pleasantries with Marlon Samuels. But it was in the first Test of the 2015 summer, against New Zealand at Lord’s, when he played the innings that confirmed what his supporters in Cumbria and Durham had long been arguing – that he had the technique as well as power to make big runs in Test cricket in spectacular fashion.
Stokes, and the new-look England, were off and running. But Bairstow took his first steps towards this recognition from Wisden wearing the White Rose of Yorkshire, with a series of dominant innings that fired them towards retaining the County Championship title.
In nine matches, he scored 1,108 runs at an average of 92.33, with five centuries including a double against Durham. Perhaps the best measure of the impact he made is the argument most commonly heard around the shires this spring that Yorkshire may struggle to complete a hat-trick of titles, despite their formidable squad depth: “They won’t have Jonny as much this year.”
He finally earned his England recall for the third Ashes Test at Edgbaston – his 15th Test cap coming 18 months after the 14th in Sydney. He didn’t make much of an impression in Birmingham, but his 74 in the first innings at Trent Bridge, in a fourth-wicket stand of 173 with Joe Root, went a long way to ensuring that Stuart Broad’s first-morning wonder spell would not be wasted – and that the Ashes would be retained.
Bairstow’s road from the fringes to a pivotal role in the Test team continued as he took over as wicketkeeper during the series against Pakistan in the UAE. But it was the Test century he had long coveted – after going so close in his first run in the team with 95 against South Africa at Lord’s in 2012 – that seemed especially symbolic.
Stokes also showed his class in that golden moment at Newlands, giving Bairstow the space for a memorably emotional celebration – with his mum and sister in the crowd.
“That’s his first Test hundred and you only get it once, so I wanted him to take in the atmosphere for a good few seconds first,” Stokes said afterwards. “It felt like the right thing to do.”
Stokes, of course, ended with the small matter of 258, setting off a fresh wave of comparisons with England’s greatest all-rounders. For both him and Bairstow, it has been quite a journey from Bloemfontein, to receiving their leather-bound Wisdens in the Long Room at Lord’s tonight.