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David Bairstow: A champion claimed by depression

David Bairstow's life took a downside turn after his retirement from cricket © Getty Images
David Bairstow’s life took a downside turn after his retirement from cricket © Getty Images

The ebullient David Bairstow was born September 1, 1951. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at one of the characters of Yorkshire cricket who was taken away by the demon called depression.

The word “livewire” is often used too lightly to describe a cheerful personality. It was, however, not lost on David Leslie Bairstow, who was outrageously violent with the bat and competent behind the stumps for Yorkshire for a period lasting two decades.

Easily identifiable due to his distinctive red hair and blue eyes (which earned him the somewhat curious nickname “Bluey” from John Hampshire), Bairstow was a champion of the limited-overs format: he was extremely popular with the Yorkshire crowd, thanks to his aggressive batting style; he could clear the ground consistently, and would have been a perfect fit in Twenty20 cricket.

He was certainly not the most talented cricketer, but he made the most out of it through hard work, grit, and immense stamina. It was Phil Carrick who famously wrote about him: “He [Bairstow] wasn’t a good wicketkeeper and he wasn’t a good batsman, but he was a great cricketer.”

The other aspect of Bairstow’s cricket was his never-say-die attitude that has so characterised Yorkshire cricket over decades. Geoff Boycott, no less, said of him: “I admire his [Bairstow’s] attitude and I like him as a man. He’s the sort of bloke you would want guarding your back in a dark alley.” Acquiring a compliment of that order from Boycott is no mean feat.

Likewise, Len Hutton: “I cannot think of anyone who has given me more pleasure in Yorkshire cricket over past 20 years.” Or Derek Hodgson of The Independent, about when Bairstow was batting at his belligerent best: “there was always a sense of alarm, of bells ringing, smell of smoke and danger.”

Yorkshire CEO Chris Hassell was no less generous in praise: “He (Bairstow) was an outstanding cricketer and a Yorkshireman with the true bulldog spirit. He will be remembered as a great character with a tenacious spirit who never gave less than 100 per cent effort.” Ray Illingworth added: “There were better wicketkeepers but put in his (Bairstow’s) temperament, enthusiasm, team spirit and never-say-die attitude and he was the best.”

Bairstow was, as David Frith wrote in Silence of the Heart: Cricket Suicides, a “burly, noisy, life-loving Yorkie”; Wisden called him “loud, combative, combustible”; Ian Woolridge [in Daily Mail] called him “ebullient, extrovert, and hugely popular”; full of energy and vitality, Bairstow infused life into the Yorkshire side whenever they took field at Headingley or elsewhere.

And yet, a man of that order — a man full of life and exuberance and joy — fell prey to that faceless demon of the worst sort: depression. He had suffered from physical pain, had faced a drink-driving charge (which, had the verdict been out, would have resulted in a ban on driving for up to a year). He lost control as the car crashed into a hedge, breaking Bairstow’s arm. A steel plate had to be inserted in his shoulder, which meant that he could not play golf, his favourite pastime since his retirement.

Janet, his second wife, was battling cancer and meanwhile undergoing chemotherapy. Bairstow also ran into problems with Yorkshire County Cricket Club (CCC); he shouted at the committee, as a result of which Yorkshire CCC threatened to bar him from entering Headingley.

Bairstow became a popular radio commentator and worked at a sports merchandising business (Trueman was his colleague), but it was never the same. The void caused by his retirement from the sport was never filled. Life seemed incomplete to him: “I was among those left wondering if there was more that I might have done,” he wrote in one of his letters.

January 5, 1998 seemed another normal day when Rebecca (17) and Jonathan (eight) went to school; Bairstow hanged himself once they left at his house at Marton-cum-Grafton; he was a few months over 46; it was a day before Janet’s birthday. Andy (22), Bairstow’s son from his first wife Gail, rushed back from Manchester.

The cricket fraternity was left spellbound: it seemed almost impossible. As news spread, friends kept visiting the family. Bairstow’s funeral was attended by over 700 people on the coldest of winter days at St Andrew’s Church. Among them was Illingworth, who commented: “If David (Bairstow) had known he had so many friends he wouldn’t have done what he did.”

Both Hampshire and Carrick (who himself died of leukaemia two years later) were both Bairstow’s pall-bearers. As they entered the church, Carrick — a great friend of Bairstow’s — uttered in his typical Yorkshire style: “Ah’ve carried t’booger out of a few places in m’time, but never in.”

It sounded almost impossible. As Fred Trueman said on BBC Radio Five Live, “David (Bairstow) was a positive and jovial man who liked a story and liked his golf. He had a love of life and what has gone wrong, I just don’t know.” Illingworth added: “I can’t believe it. David (Bairstow) lived life to the full.” Wisden added that Bairstow was “perhaps the only unequivocally popular man in Yorkshire”.

Even the tough Brian Close was taken aback: “He (Bairstow) always had the right attitude. He was a fine cricketer and in 20 years’ playing for Yorkshire he proved it. I played with him last September for the Lord’s Taverners and he seemed as cheerful as ever.” Close would have known. Bairstow was, after all, the only youngster who had dared ride a car driven by Close, who was notorious for reckless speed-driving.

Hampshire was perhaps the only one who had seen the sadness behind Bairstow’s exuberant self. He wrote in Bairstow’s testimonial booklet: “He (Bairstow) at times does have fits of depression which, although they don’t reverberate round the side, do have a telling effect on the dressing-room and when this man is down the whole world knows about it. He was not exactly famed for his whispering.”

The real reason behind the suicide remained unknown, but it was certainly triggered by depression. The coroner actually returned an open verdict, not convinced of true intent of suicide above a “cry for help”.

Yorkshire mainstay

Bairstow’s wicketkeeping was “never beautiful but usually efficient” [Wisden], but his explosive batting helped improve the Yorkshire team balance, allowing them to play the extra batsman or bowler. He could be a match-winner on his day with the bat — especially in the shorter version. Wisden wrote: “(David) Bairstow believed he could intimidate the bowling simply by announcing that he was going to whack the ball back over the bowler’s head, and often enough he kept his promise.”

From 459 First-Class matches Bairstow held 961 catches and 138 stumpings. He effected six victims in an innings seven times in County Championship. This included seven catches against Derbyshire at Scarborough in 1982, which remains the Yorkshire record; it was also a shared Championship record (David East, Steve Marsh, and Jonathan Batty have subsequently done eight in an innings).

However, he took four more catches in the second innings, and his tally of 11 victims from the match remains a Yorkshire record and a shared Championship record. For Yorkshire Bairstow also holds the records for most catches (904); he ranks fifth in the list of stumpings (130) and third in overall victims (1,034).

No pushover with the bat, Bairstow scored 13,961 runs at 26.44 with ten hundreds. His four Tests fetched him 125 runs at 20.83 (along with 13 victims), but it was more as an “impact player” in the shorter format that he carved a niche of his own. He was an excellent finisher, especially at domestic level (once must remember that English domestic cricket of the era was fiercely competitive).

Early days

Born in Horton, Bradford, Bairstow went to Hanson Grammar School. He showed promise in both cricket and football at an early age, and even went on to represent Bradford City Association Football Club. Then, when he was supposed to appear for an English Literature A-level examination, he was summoned to play Gloucestershire.

Special arrangements were made so that the 18-year old could sit for the test at six in the morning. He made his First-Class debut later that day in a star-studded Yorkshire line-up. He scored 15 and two, but held four catches, and never looked back. He played for two more seasons before earning the Yorkshire cap in 1973.

After Glamorgan put up 349 for seven at Middlesborough in 1976, Bairstow scored 106 — his maiden First-Class hundred — to lift Yorkshire from 60 for three to 352 for eight. The match is remembered for Yorkshire’s famous 318-run chase in 55.2 overs, Geoff Boycott leading the way with a rampant 156 not out.

That winter Bairstow got an offer from Griqualand West to play the Currie Cup. Almost immediately he scored 106 and 72 to save a match against Natal B at Pietermaritzburg, and followed it with 96 and 91 against Border at Kimberley. He had a good season, scoring 468 at 39.00 from six matches along with 12 victims. He played for them in the subsequent season as well.

Meanwhile, he grew in stature in domestic cricket, and with Alan Knott’s career approaching to an end, Bairstow, along with Roger Tolchard, suddenly became the closest competitor to Bob Taylor for Knott’s deputy. He was eventually picked for the 1978-79 tour of Australia as a replacement for Tolchard, who had fractured his cheekbone.

International debut and a close shave

Bairstow was thrust into the third ODI at MCG to replace Tolchard: he had not played a tour match before that. However, he had fielded as a substitute in a tour match against Tasmania at Hobart (Taylor kept wickets), Bairstow managed to hit one of the umpires with an erratic throw. Then he fell on the dressing-room floor and chipped his nose. This was followed by lunch, where he talked incessantly, stopping only when the waitress approached, and announced that he had double or triple vision.

There was nothing much to write about Bairstow’s ODI debut: he caught Andrew Hilditch off Ian Botham, who, in combination with Mike Hendrick, bowled out the hosts for 101 before England won by seven wickets. Bairstow did not get a chance to bat. He played the last two matches — both at MCG — and batted and failed in both.

On their way back from Australia, team manager Ken Barrington, asked the players to groom themselves a bit as the flight flew above France. In the process Bairstow achieved something that few have in the history of mankind: he managed to cut himself using an electric razor.

David Bairstow (right) and Mike Brearley at a game between Yorkshire and Middlesex © Getty Images
David Bairstow (right) and Mike Brearley at a game between Yorkshire and Middlesex © Getty Images

The Test cap came later that year. He replaced Taylor in the fourth Test against India at The Oval. He scored nine in the first innings (but took three catches), but it was in the second innings that he came to his elements. With England looking for quick runs to set a tight score, Mike Brearley dropped himself down the order. Bairstow walked out at eight, scored a 114-ball 59 not out, and added an unbeaten 43 in 36 minutes with Phil Edmonds for the eighth wicket before Brearley declared.

Sydney madness

Bairstow made it to the next tour of Australia, but was once again restricted to the ODIs. He played nine matches, scoring 118 at 29.50 and effecting seven dismissals. England eventually pipped Australia to the final (though they lost to West Indies), but Bairstow turned out to be an excellent finisher.

Australia were restricted to 207 for nine at MCG. As England scored runs, they kept losing wickets as well, and Bairstow walked out at 183 for six to join Brearley. While the captain held fort, Bairstow hit some fine strokes, eventually finishing with 15 not out from 15 balls and guided England to a three-wicket victory with one over to spare.

The finest performance came at SCG. Australia were bowled out for 163, but Dennis Lillee kept on hitting back, and when Graham Gooch fell (after playing a lone hand of 69) the score read 105 for seven. A debutant John Emburey walked out to join Bairstow. The Yorkshireman allowed Emburey to get on with the hitting: the latter fell for a quick 18, but England still needed 35.

Graham Stevenson, the other debutant and Bairstow’s mate from Yorkshire, walked out with only John Lever scheduled to follow. Stevenson greeted a bemused Ian Chappell with the words “nice night for it, i’nt’it!” Bairstow moved across to greet Stevenson at the crease with the words “we can p*ss this, old son!” Lillee, in the company of Len Pascoe, Jeff Thomson, and Geoff Dymock, failed to stop Bairstow and Stevenson from pulling it off.

The other incident of note came against West Indies at SCG. West Indies were set to chase a rain-reduced target of 199 in 47 overs, and Colin Croft was left with the task of scoring three off the last ball. Brearley, taking advantage of the laws, pushed everyone including Bairstow to the boundary amidst boos and jeers from the crowd. Standing in front of the sight-screen, Bairstow kept on laughing at volleys of insults.

More Tests

Bairstow was selected as Taylor’s deputy for the Jubilee Test of 1979-80 but did not get to play. He did a detour of Taj Mahal with his wife Gail. He hired a cycle-rickshaw, and when the driver could not pedal any further, Bairstow, in a display of both compassion and strength of calf muscle, pedalled the rickshaw back to the hotel.

That summer saw Bairstow play one of his finest innings. After Middlesex had put up 391, Yorkshire were bowled out for 118 by Wayne Daniel, Vintcent van der Bijl, Mike Selvey, and Fred Titmus. Following on, they were 86 for six when Bairstow walked out. He added 79 with Hampshire, but at 181 for seven innings defeat seemed inevitable.

Bairstow launched into the Middlesex attack, lighting up Scarborough and adding 128 with Arnie Sidebottom. He was eventually out for 145 as Yorkshire scored 370 and lost by eight wickets. The innings earned Bairstow another Test call-up, this time against West Indies, at Headingley, at the expense of Knott.

England were duly reduced to 59 for six when Bairstow joined Botham. He hit Michael Holding for four consecutive fours; when a furious Holding bounced, Bairstow ducked. He eventually top-scored with 40 as England reached 163, but when Gordon Greenidge edged Chris Old between him and first slip, Bairstow did not go for it: the single incident undid his performance. He remained unbeaten on nine as the match was rained out.

Despite the dropped chance Bairstow kept wickets in the Centenary Test at Lord’s. He stumped Graeme Wood off Emburey, caught Bruce Laird in each innings off Old, and had a good outing in general — more so because the fourth day of the Test was his 29th birthday. Unfortunately, all did not go well: both his wallet and his wife Gail’s fur coat were stolen from his hotel room during the Test.

The final tour

Bairstow toured West Indies in 1980-81. It was not a pleasant outing: he was not happy with Botham, appointed captain for the tour, and did not care to hide his emotions. Bairstow kept complaining that Botham kept on preferring Paul Downton to him for the Tests.

Frith defended Botham in his book: “In reality, the Yorkshireman (Bairstow) never quite came to terms with the sometimes concrete-hard and sometimes broken and difficult pitches on which he had to keep wicket.” Despite that, he played all five ODIs and the third Test at Kensington Oval.

Bairstow took five catches in the match, but he dropped Larry Gomes and missed a stumping of Clive Lloyd. Lloyd scored 100, Gomes 58, and they added 154 to rescue West Indies after they were 65 for four. Viv Richards slammed 182 not out in the second innings, and England, hit by the sudden demise of Barrington, crumbled to 122 and 224. Bairstow did not play another Test, and after the tour, another ODI.

Winning the Derby

It could have been just another Benson & Hedges Cup match at Derby: John Wright and Peter Kirsten helped Derbyshire to 202 for eight in the stipulated 55 overs, and batting second, Yorkshire were hit hard by Colin Tunnicliffe. Boycott provided some resistance before falling for 31. Walking out at 64 for five, Bairstow saw Yorkshire being reduced to 123 for nine as the debutant Mark Johnson walked out to join him.

Then Bairstow imploded: he hit nine sixes in an innings that, to quote Wisden, “left everyone on the ground aghast”. Special treatment was dished out to David Steele and Geoff Miller, Yorkshire won by a wicket with eight balls to spare. Bairstow finished on 103 not out, his only list A hundred; and Johnson contributed a mere four in the unbroken last wicket stand of 80.

Captain of Yorkshire

Yorkshire gave Bairstow a benefit season in 1982, which made him richer by £56,913. Unfortunately, he lost his father the same year. He was appointed captain of Yorkshire in 1984. Yorkshire CCC wanted him to give up wicketkeeping and focus on his batting, but Bairstow was adamant.

Wisden later mentioned that Bairstow’s wicketkeeping “seemed to deteriorate at the same time, possibly because his insecurity kept him playing through injuries that should have been rested.” It also led to Steve Rhodes leaving Yorkshire to pursue a career at Worcestershire.

Hodgson later wrote that Bairstow’s tenure was one of “a series of uphill cavalry charges”. The trademark “C’mon Arn” (at Sidebottom, his fatigued spearhead) echoed over Headingley helplessly. It was a monumental task for Bairstow as he tried in vain to lift the sagging spirits single-handedly. “The responsibility of the job rendered a fun-lover somewhat serious,” wrote Frith.

Thankfully, Bairstow’s tenure came to an end in 1986. He was replaced by Carrick. He played till 1990 before Close, Chairman of Yorkshire CCC Selection Committee (and Bairstow’s first captain), informed him that his contract would not be renewed anymore. His final First-Class appearance came for a star-studded M Parkinson’s World XI against the touring Indians. Bairstow did not bat but claimed four catches.

Personal life

David Bairstow met Gail in 1973. Gail later told Roger Cross of Yorkshire Post: “He (Bairstow) had a broken nose and long hair and he loved himself. He was so ugly that I thought he was punch-drunk, but he had such lovely manners!” Gail fraternised with Frances Edmonds, and the two of them, to borrow a phrase from Frith, composed “cheeky ditties about the players, both England’s and the visitors’, whoever they happened to be”.

He nicknamed Gail “Stormy”, which, to quote Hodges, was “a word that described their later relationship”. They had a son (Andy, as mentioned above) and a daughter. Andy later followed his father footsteps and kept wickets, albeit for Derbyshire.

Jonathan “Jonny”, David’s son from Janet, is also a Yorkshire wicket-keeper (and a talented footballer who had attended trials for Leeds United), but is known more for his batting. At the time of writing this article, Jonny has represented England in 39 matches across formats.

 (Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)

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