at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
Jonny Bairstow doesn’t have celebrity friends. Sir Geoffrey Boycott, a friend of his late father, doesn’t count. And though Piers Morgan shouldn’t count as a celeb, in the flimsy times in which we live he holds that status by virtue of bluster rather than substance.
Morgan, a former tabloid editor and currently a talkshow host, has been a loud voice in favour of the most famous absentee in Test cricket’s history. He’s taken to twitter and British talk radio to voice his support for the one who doth text too much. There was nary a word of support from him for Bairstow before the match, and with the exception of his colleagues in the dressing room, not a lot of others thought red-head was ready for a match of this importance.
However, circumstances beyond Bairstow’s control thrust him into the spotlight here, and the situation of the match meant that glare was intensified.
South Africa seemed to be energised by their first innings recovery and produced a brutal assault on England’s top order that yielded four wickets. Sure they were aggressive but they were also thoughtful and disciplined and especially in the hour after lunch, they bossed the game.
The thinking clearly with Bairstow was to examine him with the short stuff. The batsman knew it, all of the crowd knew it, the chaps dishing beer in the bars knew it – Dale Steyn had told everyone South Africa would do it. Trouble is they overdid the short ball and it proved costly and may yet be something they come to regret.
Bairstow, wearing a chest pad, swayed and ducked the short ball in the hour he batted up to the tea break. Television statistics indicated the South African bowlers had delivered 56 percent of the balls the young Yorkshireman faced off a short length. That figure was too high, no matter what his reputation.
They continued to pepper him after the interval but by then Bairstow was braver and the pull shot came out, much to Steyn’s chagrin. Had Steyn pitched it up more, he would have prevented Bairstow from getting away and probably examined an area of his game which really is weaker – his play outside the off-stump.
“Steyntjie and Morné were always going to target him on the short ball especially after we saw the footage against the West Indies. But he played very well today,” said Vernon Philander, who finished with 1/30.
South Africa’s best bowler yesterday was Morné Morkel, who although also guilty of bowling too short too often, unsettled all the England batsmen starting with the openers Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook. However, just as in South Africa’s innings, once the ball got softer, and with the sun baking the life out of the pitch, batting became relatively easier, and Bairstow, in combination with Ian Bell, ensured the home side regained the initiative.
It was a clever partnership, courageous in its infancy and then inspiring for the audience – including the more, ahem, unified England dressing-room – and when Bairstow reached 50 the first man to jump to his feet was his captain, Andrew Strauss.
A rather telling show of animated support.
Vernon Philander broke the fifth wicket partnership Bairstow showed with the patient Ian Bell late in the day when he induced an edge from the latter, but with the dangerous Matt Prior at the crease and England still possessed of a tail that can wag, this match remains delicately poised.
Earlier, the tourists crucially surpassed 300 owing a lot to the maiden Test half-century by Philander, whose returns with the bat in his short career have been modest.