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Bairstow’s time

Wisden India logo Wisden India 21-05-2016
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“We just don’t rate you.” Forget aggressive swearing and suggestions of fornication with an adversary’s nearest and dearest, this is the most bruising put-down in the Australian cricket vernacular.

And make no mistake: Australia, as a country, doesn’t rate Jonny Bairstow. He isn’t hated nor is he a point of derision; he just isn’t a thing. Or hasn’t been, at any rate. For an English player, that hurts.

Save for his breakout 150 not out in South Africa in January, at this level he’s mostly been known as an Ashes gap fill. And not a particularly effective one at that, with his most noteworthy contribution coming the day Australia were ram-raided for 60 last year.

Yet over the last two days, for the class and temperament of the century he posted after entering with England in strife at 83 for 5, he was legitimised. In doing so, he finally graduated to becoming guy you’d want to mentally disintegrate.

Friday afternoon’s carnage may have been executed by fast bowling colleagues, but the stage was set for them to do as they pleased only due to their No.7’s defining hand.

Resuming beyond 50, the onus was on Bairstow to start again, with England’s recovery admirable but not complete. His punch in front of point signalled early intent, as did the racing between the wickets to raise his 100-run stand with Alex Hales (of which he had 67).

It wasn’t a flawless knock, but centuries seldom are: Nuwan Pradeep dropped him off his own bowling and he was beaten in the next over by Shaminda Eranga. But as Graeme Swann put it, when you are hitting the ball as crisply as Bairstow, playing your shots is the price of doing business.

It wasn’t a flawless knock, but centuries seldom are: Nuwan Pradeep dropped him off his own bowling and he was beaten in the next over by Shaminda Eranga. But as Graeme Swann put it, when you are hitting the ball as crisply as Bairstow, playing your shots is the price of doing business.

Despite Moeen Ali and Stuart Broad falling culpably within an over while he was stuck on 97 at the other end, Bairstow would receive the support he needed to finish the job via Steve Finn. Bairstow trusted his fast bowler by taking a single early in Herath’s next over, and that faith was repaid with defence befitting a batting position in single digits.

When Bairstow crunched a cover drive at Kusal Silva, and he pinged at the non-striker’s stumps, two overthrows were taken and a century was secured from 145 balls. His first in England. On his home deck. To resurrect his country’s innings. It was a special moment.

Saluting on this famous old ground was nominated by Bairstow last week as his No.1 bucket list item. The crowd responded accordingly to their lad, just the seventh Yorkshireman to make a Headingley century. We should have seen it coming, given he had made 264 and 198 here already this season. This place makes him lift.

After lunch, Bairstow needed no invitation to take on the second new ball, punctuated by an uppercut from the white-ball manual. Finn was getting in on the act too with a clip through midwicket that VVS Laxman would have been happy with. A half-century partnership was raised. So much for the Wall from Watford.

Bairstow would finally fall for 140 after one too many enterprising efforts. But crucially, this was 206 runs after he had arrived. This was, by any definition, his first matchwinning knock.

It is Bairstow’s gloves that shape the discussion about his future. With Jos Butter’s natural ability so obvious, if room is to be found for him, it is logical for the incumbent to specialise with bat. If that ends up the case, it’s the definition of a good problem to have.

Enter the England seam machine. Leading into the Test, James Anderson’s ropey South African tour coupled with his ordinary record on this side of the Pennines was meant to count against him.

Think again. Anderson has been clocking up the overs early in the season for his county and it showed as he and Stuart Broad put on a clinic.

In the case of Broad, his initial spell was faultless, in that every ball he bowled was on or outside off stump. Every single delivery. They both cashed in at either end of the innings, with a series of copy-book dismissals behind the wicket, the catchers doing the rest. Through the 37 overs, CricViz calculated that England bowlers beat or hit the edge 41 times. This was ball dominating bat in the most profound way.

Yet, for all the pressure being built, it was noteworthy that at one stage Sri Lanka had found their way to 77 for 4 with their most capable player, Angelo Mathews, still there and appearing relatively set. A reminder again that 27 hours earlier, England were 83 for 5. On paper at least, this was not a lost cause.

In practice, Anderson was just preparing for a second spell. Once reintroduced, he removed the touring skipper within six balls, LBW as though it were foretold. It was shown later that Mathews should have reviewed, a decision he’ll surely lament, as his side’s last six wickets ultimately fell for 14. It was the kind of collapse we’ve grown to expect from West Indies, not Sri Lanka.

With four of those final six, Anderson got to lead the side off with his first five-wicket bag at Leeds, and Alistair Cook was able to send Sri Lanka back in for another hit as they were 207 behind.

Anderson and Broad are old hands at this business though. They’ve won more games for England between them than they can possibly even recall. But you only get one first time. And this is Jonny Bairstow’s. Overlooked he’ll be no more.

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