The Ashes is a-month-and-half away. Australia hope to reclaim the urn the way they did in 2013-14. England hope to repeat their 2010-11 feat. The controversy around Ben Stokes (and Alex Hales) has had an effect in the preparation of the visitors. Joe Root’s side have other big names as well. A chunk of batting fortunes for England now revolves around Root’s fellow Yorkshireman Jonny Bairstow — probably England’s most improved cricketer in last two seasons.
The 28-year-old wicketkeeper-batsman has now co-authored a book — A Clear Blue Sky. The book reveals a lot about Jonny’s younger life and also throws light on why his father, the renowned former cricketer David Bairstow committed suicide.
Daily Mail published a few columns discussing moments from Jonny’s life. We bring you the excerpts from the publication that has serialised the book penned by the English cricketer.
On his father’s suicide
“First, the bare, stark fact. The matter of public record. My dad David Bairstow was only 46 years and 126 days old when he committed suicide almost 20 years ago. My mum Janet, my sister Becky and I found him when we returned home at 8.30 pm on one of those typically lampblack and cold January nights. He had hanged himself from the staircase.
“Now, the speculation, the what-ifs, the what-might-have-beens, the guesswork.
“Everything seemed normal to me. They say that infants can pick up a minute shift of mood at home, alerting them when something is a little off. I’d gone past the stage of infancy — I was a young child — but the eight-year-old me had registered nothing untoward.
“To me, my dad was just my dad, as ebullient and as energetic as ever. I never saw him down or doubtful, or fretful about either himself or our future. I had no inkling that anything was wrong. He didn’t seem like a man full of distractions to me.
“In the morning I said goodbye to him and walked to school with Becky, the Christmas holidays over and a new term beginning.
“In the early evening my mum took me to football training at Leeds United, bringing Becky too. That our lives changed irrevocably while the three of us were away seemed to me — then as well as now — inconceivable and incomprehensible.
“The inquest into my dad’s death, which I didn’t attend, heard evidence about his mental state. That he’d been suffering from depression and stress. That he’d seen both his own doctor and a consultant psychiatrist.
“That he’d experienced extreme mood swings, veering between the dramatically high and dramatically low, leaving my mum unsure about ‘which version of him would come through the door’. That he’d been for a drink at one of his favourite pubs a few hours before he died (though the toxicology report revealed no extravagant level of alcohol in his system).
“That he’d been concerned about my mum’s health and the treatment she was undergoing for breast cancer, diagnosed less than three months before and far more aggressive than even she appreciated at the time.
“She’d had chemotherapy, radiotherapy and then chemotherapy again. She was wearing a wig because her hair had fallen out. I didn’t know — but I learnt later — that the hospital became more concerned about my dad’s emotional state than my mum’s.
“He was afraid she was going to die. He was also afraid of how he would cope — and what would happen to us — if she did.”
On his father’s depression
David had been anxious about an impending court case on drink-driving charges. He had been involved in a car accident. Jonny had been with his father in the vehicle during the incident. He had been fretting over how he had put young Jonny’s life in risk and how it could have been worse.
“The coroner was patient and sympathetic, aware of my dad’s popularity and the accounts of him as a decent family man. He recorded an open verdict, as certain as he could be that my dad hadn’t meant to die.
“He was making a further ‘cry for help’, and it had gone wrong in a way he hadn’t foreseen and didn’t intend because his illness confused him and clouded his judgment.
“My dad, knowing that we were on our way home, thought we would rescue him, added the coroner.
“As it turned out, one small innocent delay after another — none of them anyone’s fault — meant we arrived back half-an-hour later than we’d planned. The coroner’s concise, concluding sentence encapsulated the difficulty for those of us left behind looking for closure and searching for ‘The Why’ behind his death. ‘I do not know what happened,’ the coroner said. ‘He is the only one who did.’
“Though almost 20 years have passed, I’m no closer to an explanation for what happened, which makes it harder to accept. Why my dad decided to end his life, and why he did so that evening, is an unsolvable puzzle. There was no note to read, no definitive clue to discover.
“The following day was my mum’s 42nd birthday. Only a few hours before he died my dad had gone to a nearby town and booked a meal for the two of them.
“There were fragments, just bits and pieces of information, but putting them together to reconstruct his last months never created a coherent whole that made absolute sense and explained everything, especially about what he must have been thinking. No matter how hard I tried, from what I knew as I grew up or discovered subsequently, there were always gaping holes. Questions that can’t be answered. Things that don’t add up. The truth is snagged somewhere in between them, caught in one of those places that’s impossible to reach. I live with that.”
The day after…
Jonny had lived in denial for a long time. He admits he knew what death was but this was unavoidable. There were times when he hoped he would wake up or return home to see his dad alive. His mom turned 42 the day after. It became more difficult for her to accept.
“We left my mum on her birthday — her cards unopened, her presents still wrapped — to deal with the business of death while coming to terms with her own emotions, her own trauma.
“She went to one of her chemotherapy sessions and discovered that the newspapers, spread across a table in the hospital waiting room, were full of headlines about my dad’s suicide. The doctors, knowing of my dad’s death, had wanted to cancel the session. ‘No,’ she insisted. ‘You can’t do that to me. Not now. Not after what I’ve just gone through.’”
Did Jonny forgive his father?
No one could have blamed young Jonny had he blamed his father for the incident, but Jonny was a man of sterner material. The toughness that remains a hallmark of the Bairstow brand of cricket was imbibed in Jonny at a young age. He had no option.
“I was only ever briefly angry with my dad for leaving us. It happened shortly after his death, when things were at their darkest and the grief in me was raw and at its worst. The feeling came and went again, wiped away because I realised he loved us, and I realised, too, how desperate he must have been to make the choice he did.
“But I’ve never had to forgive my dad because I’ve never believed there was anything to forgive him for in the first place.
“I do, nevertheless, think about what my dad’s death denied us. All the matches, as an honoured guest, that he could have watched me play in. All the birthday parties, all the holidays and all the Christmases he’s missed with my mum and Becky and me.
“All the family photos in which he doesn’t appear. In the same way I’ve thought about the times the two of us could have shared, the stories he could have told me and the advice he could have given. I never got to buy him a pint. He never got to buy me one.
“At least I can still recall his voice, the acoustic accompaniment to some of the memories I have.”
… and finally, the tears flowed…
The shock was unbearable for a boy of eight. The patriarch of the house had taken his life. The mother was battling for life. Little Jonny had made a promise to himself that if he would cry he would do it in solitude. The years rolled by and from Gladiators on his wall to a flourishing cricket career, he kept all the emotions bottled inside till the August day at Newquay where he had gone to learn surfing, a month before he turned 17…
“One night we had a barbecue on the beach. We ran into another group, blokes of about our own age and a bit older who came from Wales. We were sitting on the sand, swapping stories, when someone began asking what our dad did for a living.
“I decided to keep my story as simple as possible. There’d be no mention that he’d been a cricketer. There’d be no mention of how he died either. ‘He passed away a while ago,’ I said, believing the conversation would end there.
“There was a short, uncomfortable silence — nothing I hadn’t experienced before — until the lad who had asked the question began staring intently back at me. His mouth slowly widened into a smirk, and then I heard a low laugh come out of him, as if death was hilarious — and that the one I’d just revealed to him was somehow especially funny.
“He continued laughing as I sat there, not knowing at first what to say or how to respond. Scarcely able to credit that anyone could be so insensitive, so brutally callous, I got up and marched off. I’d gone about 200 yards when I broke down.
“My best and oldest friend Gareth Drabble saw me take off and followed closely behind. I headed for a narrow pathway that ran away from the beach. For almost an hour we sat alone on a low stone wall. I shook. I raged. I cried uncontrollably until, finally, there was nothing left in me.
“It was like opening a valve and because everything came out, so everything came back in a flash too. My dad’s death. The aftershock. Our struggle to comprehend it. Our struggle to cope. Even the fact that I’d never behaved in such a way before.
“I’d always been able to handle it. This was different. Perhaps because nothing was said, but only implied, which made things worse. Or perhaps because, after so long, it was finally time for me to let go, releasing what I’d consciously suppressed.
“It was an experience I had to go through.”
The Next ‘Bluey’
David was fondly called Bluey by mates and his Yorkshire colleagues. Jonny, a wicketkeeper-batsman like his father, has inherited the nickname. He wasn’t comfortable with it initially. He had heard many address David by that name. He felt it wouldn’t be right to use it without David’s permission.
But where was David?
As time passed by and Jonny grew in stature, he realised that he would evolve as the more popular Bluey in the world of cricket. He may not end up playing close to 900 matches for Yorkshire but he has begun his voyage as being one of England’s greatest wicketkeeper-batsmen.
“As a family we have small keepsakes of him too. And I have something of him that belongs only to me. It’s his nickname. When I came into the Yorkshire academy I was christened Bluey almost immediately.
“At first I recoiled a little uneasily from it. I’d heard so many people call him that. Bluey was his; it seemed to me the copyright on the nickname belonged solely to him.
“I didn’t think I had any right to it. Absurd as this may sound, I also felt as though I needed his permission to use it.
“Now I think dad would be chuffed to find out the small boy he knew is Bluey too.”
Mum Janet’s cancer relapse and Jonny being away in India
But David’s death was not the only tragedy Jonny had to absorb. The demon of cancer came back to haunt the family yet again. Janet was diagnosed again. And when it came to looking back at life in its eye, Janet showed as much character as her celebrated son.
“She didn’t even complain about her cancer. I’ve never heard her ask ‘Why me?’, though the question would not only be legitimate but also perfectly understandable for someone who has been through so much so often. My mum thinks I get my determination and resilience from my dad. I think it comes mostly from her. She’s recovered from each setback and every adversity, demonstrating a resilience that astonishes me.
“Like my dad’s death, Becky and I recall my mum’s original diagnosis of cancer and then her treatment in fragments. Most of all, we remember how tired she became and how long it took for her to get well again. Also like my dad’s death, she explained her cancer to us — or as much as she dared — without ever getting emotional, aware as ever of our feelings.”
“It was the winter of 2012, only four days before Christmas. I was on England’s tour of India. My mum didn’t want me to know what was happening to her in case it affected my form. She decided that I shouldn’t be told until after the surgeon had done his work. Only Becky changed her mind. ‘You’ve got to tell him,’ she said. ‘He’ll want to come home and be with you.’ Becky continued to press that point.
“The way she felt was the way I would feel, she argued. ‘I’d be heartbroken if I learnt about the operation only after it was over.’
“I was in Pune, a city that is one of the symbols of the new, vibrant India. The temperature was over 30 degrees. Your mobile phone is locked away when a game starts, so England’s security officer Reg Dickason had to bring a message. It was no more than a solemn ‘Your mum wants to speak to you’, a handful of words that I knew were drenched in meaning. It couldn’t be anything but bad news. I was on the outfield, preparing for the match.
“I ran off to reclaim my phone, saying nothing to anyone at first.
“I called my mum without being able to reach her. ‘I need to know what’s wrong,’ I said to Reg. So he told me. The trek home began as a long day’s journey into a sleepless night. Mumbai is only 90 miles away from Pune, but the drive there took five hours. The wait for a flight to Manchester took five hours more. The flight itself took 12 hours. I touched down at 10 am.
“I was on the road almost an hour later. Since it was the weekend before Christmas, the holiday rush had begun, and it took almost two hours to travel from the airport to the hospital in York.
“The car got stuck in a jam and I told the driver in panic: ‘Please, just get me there somehow, anyhow, any way.’ I arrived just 20 minutes before my mum was wheeled into theatre for an 11-hour operation. There was just enough time to kiss her and hold her hand.”
The brave lady had triumphed in the second titanic battle of her life.
We are heading to another Ashes extravaganza. The Australians are being hammered in India at in limited-overs cricket at the moment, but the core group has begun aiming for the English scalps under Darren Lehmann’s astute guidance. It will not be a surprise if we find out Mitchell Starc by hearting Mitchell Johnson’s videos from 2013-14.
For whom the Bell tolls
He was a fortnight away from his 16th birthday when the Ashes 2005 ended. Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff were the national heroes. The urn was back with England after over a decade and half. Like many other English boys, Bairstow found a hero as well, albeit an unlikely one — “the baby of the team.” In a few years’ he would share sage with his idol.
“He was neat and gracefully compact, his movement gorgeous to watch. I didn’t want to miss a ball when he came in, thinking I could learn something. I would have paid at the gate to study him alone.
“Even his walk to the wicket had an authority about it.
“He had a Slazenger bat. I had a Slazenger bat too, and in the nets at St Peter’s School in York I tried to copy him — the lovely arc of his pick-up, the lovelier follow-through. He’d sometimes hold the final position of the shot, as though posing for a sculptor who was about to start chipping away at some vast block of stone.
“I watched him with awe and I wanted to be like him. I also wanted to play against Australia, but it was not the sort of private thought you made too public because it sounded fanciful — even more crazy than telling everyone you planned to fly to the moon simply by flapping your arms.
“But less than eight years later, on an overcast early afternoon, I came down the shallow drop of stone steps that lead out of the wooden pavilion at Trent Bridge. It was my first Ashes Test. We were batting on a pitch that was the colour of parched wheat. We were in a bit of trouble: 124 for four.
“There was a small swarm of butterflies doing aerobatics in my stomach. I was wearing my game-face, as sternly serious as I could make it. My new partner was leaning on his bat at the Radcliffe Road end. He nodded a greeting to me, and I nodded back. It was Ian Bell.
“An over or two later, he got a delivery that wasn’t too full or too wide. The front foot went forward, as elegantly as a ballet step. He leant into the ball and drilled it through the covers. It was one of those shots that you know, as soon as it hums off the middle, that the fielder isn’t there to stop the ball, but merely to bring it back.
“It could have been 2005 all over again … except that I was now part of the action.”
This November 23 at The Gabba, Bairstow will be facing probably the toughest challenge of his professional career. However, when pitted against his life, the word ‘tough’ barely makes sense when it comes to mere cricket matches.
He might have cemented his spot in the England ODI side and successfully slipped into Matt Prior’s boots, but this winter will mark his legacy in the annals of English cricket.
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