England v SA, 3rd Investec Test, Lord's, 2nd day August 17, 2012

Bairstow vindicates his selection

Having been picked in place of one of England's finest ever batsman, Jonny Bairstow succeeded in the most testing of circumstances

Had Jonny Bairstow been accompanied on his walk to the crease by a wake of vultures, the pressure on him could hardly have been greater.

On the biggest stage, against the best attack, with the No. 1 Test ranking at stake, Bairstow battled through several spells of wonderfully hostile fast bowling to record the highest score of the match to date and resurrect his side's flagging victory hopes.

England were teetering on 54 for 4 when he joined Ian Bell, still 255 runs behind and in danger of failing to reach the follow-on mark of 110. By the close they were just 101 behind with five wickets in hand. The Test, the series and the No.1 ranking all remain in the balance. It is largely due to Bairstow.

In years to come, we may come to compare this innings with Jonathan Trott's Test debut against Australia at the Oval in 2009. This is not Bairstow's debut, of course. He has played three Tests previously but, having had some weakness against the short ball exploited by West Indies' fast bowlers, he came into this match with many questions to answer about his technique and temperament and many doubters to silence. Certainly the South Africa side were quick to remind him - both vocally and with a number of searing short deliveries - of his previous struggles.

Bairstow also played this innings in the knowledge that he was the replacement for Kevin Pietersen, the man of the match in the last Test and, arguably, England's best middle order batsman for half a century. Bairstow knew that his was a controversial selection and he knew that some were willing him to fail. He knew, too, that when he came out to bat that his side were desperately in need of a substantial contribution. It takes something quite special to perform in such circumstances.

But perhaps we should not have been surprised. Bairstow has only played 13 international limited-overs games and he has won the man of the match award in two of them. He has shown before that he has the temperament to thrive in such circumstances, not least on his international debut at Cardiff when he seized an ODI against the World Champions, India, by the scruff of the neck and pulled off a remarkable victory.

There is no doubt that, just as Pietersen was dropped for perceived flaws in his character, Bairstow was selected by perceived strengths in his.

Bairstow lost confidence after his experience against West Indies. His next eight innings after the series in all formats brought him a top score of just 27 and five scores under six. He spoke to Geoffrey Boycott, a close family friend for many years, and worked hard with England batting coaches Graham Gooch and Graham Thorpe but ultimately, according to his county coach, he just required more time in the middle. A century, albeit a century on a sluggish, flat pitch, against Australia A last week was perfect preparation for this match.

"He was disappointed after the West Indies series," Martin Moxon, the director of cricket at Yorkshire, said. "He had a rough few weeks and a little bit of doubt crept into his mind. It can be tough when you struggle a bit and then you hear people questioning you and your technique.

"But I don't think anyone who knew him well thought that he had a serious problem against the short ball. It was just that he hadn't been exposed to that much genuinely quick bowling and, to improve, you have to face more of it.

"The most important thing he could do was get that belief in himself back again. He needed a long innings and he got it by scoring a century against Leicestershire. He followed that with a century for England Lions against an Australia A side which included a proper fast bowler in Mitchell Johnson last week, so he went into the Test with his confidence restored.

"It's no surprise to anyone at Yorkshire that he has played this innings. He has character in abundance and I'm sure he'll go on to have a long career for England now."

It would be naive to suggest that this innings proves that Kevin Pietersen may not be missed by England, though. Equally, it would be simplistic to conclude that Bairstow is certain to enjoy a long and glorious Test career.

Sport rarely offers such certainty and it should not be overlooked that several of England's top order - notably Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott - were guilty of strokes unbecoming of batsmen of their class. On merit and ignoring personality issues Pietersen still walks in this team.

But it surely bodes well for Bairstow, for England and for cricket in Britain that a 22-year-old can be plucked from the county game and perform so admirably in such circumstances. There is still considerable work to do on day three - England need a first innings lead to be confident of forcing a result in this game - but from a position where they were clinging on desperately, they have now transferred just a little of the pressure on to the shoulders of the South Africa team. And their record of dealing with pressure is not the best.

This was not a wholly convincing innings. There were times when Bairstow was unsettled by the short ball, times when he was beaten outside off stump and times, such as the edge that flew between the slips and the gully to bring up his maiden Test half-century, when he enjoyed some fortune.

But perhaps those struggles made Bairstow's innings all the more impressive. It forced him to work. It forced a thorough examination of technique and temperament and, in between some nervous moments, he showed the patience to wait for the scoring opportunity - after 69 deliveries he had scored only 28 runs - the ability to leave well and the ability to put away the poor ball - including the poor short ball - with encouraging confidence. Bairstow was tested, certainly, but he passed with some flair.

"He showed great character," Ian Bell, his partner in a stand of 124 for England's fifth-wicket said afterwards. "He was tested on areas he has worked on and handled himself brilliantly. South Africa really tested him but he got through it.

"He was probably committed to one thing against the short ball. Against the West Indies he maybe didn't know whether he wanted to take it on or get under it. But he showed good technique, he got his hands out of the way to Morkel and Steyn then when he wanted to take it on he committed to that. We started to see the shots you hear about from him in county cricket."

Sometimes we make too much of character. While coaches often state that it is more important than natural talent that approach would, taken to its logical conclusion, mean Nelson Mandela opening the batting for South Africa and Florence Nightingale the bowling for England.

But there is no doubt that, just as Pietersen was dropped for perceived flaws in his character, Bairstow was selected by perceived strengths in his. And, in arguably as high a pressure situation as a Test can be played, he fully vindicated that selection.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Ross on August 18, 2012, 15:27 GMT

    @Ben Tumilty - Phil Hughes scored a century against this attack. Not that I'm saying that Hughes is a champion - almost home-grown English in his mediocrity in fact - but a better player of the short ball than Bairstow beyond any doubt. Bairstow certainly had his own technique against the chin music - I suppose if you drop the bat on the ground & cover your face with your hands, you stand very little chance of getting caught.

  • Andrew on August 18, 2012, 12:01 GMT

    @Ben Tumilty - the bits I've seen of his innings may suggest his weakness against the short ball is a myth. The myth won't be disproven by a good 90 though, also bear in mind, that the WIndies pacers were a bit quicker, & someone like Cummins or Pattinson being that extra 5+kph faster may disturb him with short stuff. There was enuff in the WIndies series to suggest he could have a problem, & I think teams will have it in their Plan A or B to him for a while to come. It is TEST cricket after all!

  • Dummy4 on August 18, 2012, 11:39 GMT

    Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. Give credit where credit is due, young Bairstow's holding England up and keeping them somewhat in it at the moment, but to you KP haters, Bairstow's not our #4 replacement, he's filling in for our #6 (who was Bopara, then Morgan, and now Bairstow after Bopara pulled out citing personal reasons). I expect the KP saga to close soon but the ECB would be living in cloud cuckoo land if they think they've found a replacement for KP. However, Bairstow would make a fine #6 if he can continue to churn out the runs. Blooding young talent is never a bad thing. Remember, England are a much stronger team with KP in the side irrespective of events that have occurred.

  • John on August 18, 2012, 9:24 GMT

    @Ben Tumilty, looks comfortable against the short ball? Who're you kiddin. A bit of chin music from Steyn early on day 3 and he'll turn to jelly and meekly give his wicket away. As for Phil Hughes, that's one of the reasons he ain't in the resurgent AUS team. But a moot point, because your popgun attack can't afford to bowl short, that's just 'money for old rope' from the 80 mph fraternity. You've had your miracle already, none of the same in the Saffers 2nd dig, barring the all-too-frequent questionable umpiring decisions that always seem to go the way of the Poms. SA will treat the Pom attack with the utter disdain it deserves and rack up a serious lead (they'll only need 200), then rip through ENG. The Barmy Army should pray for rain, it's your only hope. Gonna be a very messy tour of IND for your guys; I expect a few careers to end, and yep, Swanny's at the top of that list.

  • Dummy4 on August 18, 2012, 8:42 GMT

    RandyOz - were you not watching? About 60% of the balls bowled at him were short! And he seemed to play them very well, pulling well, leaving well. To be fair to him, he looks a darn sight more comfortable against the short ball than Phil Hughes...

  • John on August 18, 2012, 8:09 GMT

    Re dealing with pressure , I'm not sure either team has handled pressure that well in recent times. England certainly haven't as they proved in UAE,SL 1st test here. Re SA , I'm not sure. I think maybe at times they get a little complacent. I mean when they needed to chase down a challenging score on a pitch where they bowled Aus out for 47 they did it with ease. When they had 300+ runs to play with against that same Aus side in the 2nd test , their dynamic pace attack could not defend it. Obviously something must be put down to Aus batsmen playing well but I also wonder if - esp when Aus were 170 odd for 5 they thought they had the game sewn up. Just a thought

  • Sean on August 18, 2012, 7:35 GMT

    Superb effort from another exciting future prospect. If he was an aussie he would have been playing for 2 or 3 years now, i mean they cant even replace ponting and he's 38 like hussey.. Have australia actually found any decent batsman since "pup" in 2002? Using watson as opener with 2 pensioners in the middle order must set alarm bells ringing.

  • Dummy4 on August 18, 2012, 7:17 GMT

    Bairstow played very well to lead the English recovery.Showing dedication and the urge to stay at crease to face Steyn & Co. especially when the side is in such precarious position and the person whom Bairstow replaced deserves praise.However to say he is a superstar in waiting or the ideal replacement of KP in such short span of time would be inappropriate.Surely he has talent but still there is a long way to go.

  • Dummy4 on August 18, 2012, 5:17 GMT

    Gutsy is a much over-used word but it sums up Bairstow's innings on a wonderful sunny afternoon of intense Test cricket at the home of cricket. Well done, young man, your late father would have been very proud of you.

  • sam on August 18, 2012, 4:01 GMT

    I thought Bairstow batted aggressively yet without giving any chances.Which in short implies he batted really well. However, we need to put things into perspective a little bit.There was no lateral movement when the sun was out which made batting very easy, a lot easier than first day. But he had to deal with scoreboard pressure of 54-4. So very well played but nothing out of the ordinary. Anyway, this is going to be a close game and given SA's record in close games, England are favourites to win this game, in my opinion.

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