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Analysis

Blame Virat Kohli for Jonny Bairstow acceleration, now that's just too easy

What exactly was said, we'll never know but Kohli didn't awaken a beast - he's been up for a while

The easiest excuse - indeed the best for Search Engine Optimisation purposes - is to blame Virat Kohli.
Jonny Bairstow was just 13 from 61 deliveries, with only a single four to his name. He'd survived an lbw appeal from Jasprit Bumrah, and had just about made it through a stern examination from Mohammed Shami, who beat both edges of Bairstow's bat five times up to that point. England's hero of the summer so far was in desperate need of rescuing.
And then Kohli decided to engage Bairstow. What exactly was said, we'll never know. But there he was, personifying India's bolshiness at the time, with the Dukes ball doing just as much baiting of the opposing batters as the former captain. Bairstow boomed a drive at the next delivery, missing completely. Kohli bellowed with laughter. Then Bairstow struck 93 off his next 79 deliveries and moved onto his 11th Test hundred.
Kohli, however, did not awaken a beast. "There was literally nothing to it," said Bairstow with a smile in his press conference at stumps.
Besides, the beast has been up for a while. And no longer is it fuelled by antagonism. New Zealand didn't say a word to Bairstow and look what happened to them.
Test century No. 5 of 2022 means Bairstow is well on course to beat the English record of six in a calendar year, with an innings to come here, three Tests against South Africa before the summer is over, then a couple of Tests in Pakistan in December. Joe Root equalled that record only last year, and no one in their right minds would have thought it would be under threat so soon. We've only just got into July.
Weird as it feels to say when someone blitzes the last 87 runs of their 100 from 58 balls, but this was pretty regulation by Bairstow's new standards. Shami and Bumrah were tonked down the ground, and by the time Shardul Thakur and Mohammed Siraj came on, the Jonny Eyes were in. Both were taken for six deep into the leg side in among the fours flicked off the pads and slapped straight or driven square. The boundary that took him over the line, a punch to the cover-point boundary, was more of timing than malice, and still beat the fielder to the sponge.
You'd think after three hundreds in the last 20 days, in which time he has scored 8.96% of all his Test runs, we'd have a better answer than "clarity" when asked to explain this absurd hot streak. But that's exactly it.
"I've never been a great technician, have I?" he joked. "That's why you lot have torn me to shreds a few times: going leg side of it, going off side of it, bowled through the gate. Nah, genuinely, I've not really thought of technique and stuff like that to be honest with you. I've just stripped everything back and trying to focus on watching the ball. There's my honest answer."
The result is a man batting in a way that is uniquely him. If Root is the poster boy of conforming, perfecting the side on, straight lines of this world, then Bairstow is the radical who is thriving by being himself. No longer is he hamstrung by the need to make all the necessary shapes to fit in. He's simply trusting his eyes and hands, in turn making believers of countless doubters who had made their minds up on him after, in their defence, averaging 21 in 18 Tests between the start of 2019 and the end of 2021, while he was still trying to do an impression of a Test cricketer.
We should also note, it hasn't just been brute thrashing, regardless of what a breakdown of his 485 runs so far this summer suggest. The strike rate is 110, and 67% of his runs have come in boundaries (75 in total, 12 of them sixes), with one every 5.9 deliveries. But only four of those have been what you might term "loose", meaning even at his most aggressive, the likelihood of him going for a big shot and nailing it exactly where he wants is 94.7%. Of the 44 batters who have hit 50 or more to the fence in an English summer, no one has exhibited more control.
The other conclusion to take from all of this is that "Bazball" is nothing without Bairstow. In fact, had he not batted as he did at Trent Bridge, blitzing 136 from 92 to see England most of the way to a chase of 299 from 50 overs, "Bazball" might not even be a thing. The broader concept of getting players to express themselves and play for enjoyment and entertainment might still be there, but the scale of belief, the sense of altruism and the fearlessness would not. All of which has come almost exclusively from Bairstow.
On Sunday, we perhaps got our clearest indication he can only do so much to carry the team, and that his clear thinking isn't quite catching on. Root's tame demise for 31 on the evening of day two, edging behind when trying to cut Siraj when the ball was too close, was compounded by captain Ben Stokes slapping Thakur to Bumrah at mid off. Having been dropped twice, including the ball before by the Indian skipper, Stokes offered an immediate chance to make amends. England were eventually 284 all out and trail India by 257 going into day four, with seven second-innings wickets still to be taken.
For all the excitement of Stokes' charges down the wicket and Root's reverse lap sweeps, their method carries a freneticism that Bairstow's does not. They are both more than capable of pumping up the run rate and moving games along, as they've shown in previous eras, without needing to take the kind of risks they are. No need to chug - just sip the Kool-Aid.
"Whatever they set, they set, and we'll go about it whatever," announced Bairstow, reading straight from the pamphlet. "We'll be going about it in the same manner and we're looking to take the game forward. Why not?"
We know he will. The question is - who else is going to join him?

Vithushan Ehantharajah is a sportswriter for ESPNcricinfo