Bairstow vindicates his selection
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.
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