A century in any formats comes in as a bolster in confidence for a batsman and it ensures that his position in the team is safe. Imagine, a batsman hasn’t reached the triple digits in Tests for almost 14 months, how desperate will he be to get there at the very next opportunity he gets. England’s wicketkeeper-batsman Jonny Bairstow was at the same place when he joined Ben Stokes in the middle on day one of the ongoing fourth Test against South Africa in Manchester. When their partnership began, England were slightly wretched at 187 for 5. After he saw wickets fall quickly on the other end, he took up the charge on his shoulders when he resumed at 33 not out on Saturday. Despite James Anderson’s incredible efforts in their stand for the tenth wicket, Bairstow would go on to be left eluded of Test hundred, yet again.
The first two overs of the second day were maiden and it was only the 94th over, bowled by Morne Morkel, where Bairstow opened his account of boundaries for the day. Eventually, throughout the day, Bairstow proved to be most harsh against the baby-faced tall pacer as he smashed Morkel for four boundaries in 12 balls – the first three fours came off the same over followed by the last four with which Bairstow reached his first fifty off 100 balls. He had support from Moeen Ali and Roland-Jones for short interval of times, who soon fell to an aggressive spell from Kagiso Rabada.
He, in due course, shared a 50-run stand with England’s tenth batsman Anderson, before facing a tragic dismissal to wrap up England’s innings. He had not batted comfortably on the opening day as well. When he resumed the second day on Saturday, he survived a few times, courtesy of sloppy fielding from the visitors. Despite earning several lives in the innings, he failed to reach the three-digit figures. On 99, when Bairstow attempted to sweep-shot left-off spinner Keshav Maharaj, he was given LBW out. He immediately reviewed but unfortunate for him that the on-field verdict was upheld on review with the edge of the ball just satisfying the parameters of DRS. With that, he entered a special club – not so happy one though – as he became the 13th English batsman to get dismissed on 99 in Test cricket.
There spread a complete awkward silence in the dressing room and in the Manchester Stadium as the spectators and his teammates mourned his tragedy. The way he batted was highly impressive; maybe he failed to make a hundred but he was given a standing ovation as he had successfully lifted England from 187 for 5 to 362 for 10 and had pushed a shaky South Africa to the brink. His knock forced the Proteas captain to set weird field placements; except the slips, the others kept moving as d Plessis could not comprehend on how to stop an aggressive Bairstow. Owing to these placements, the bowlers struggled to bowl and in turn only gave an edge to Bairstow against this confused bunch of opponents.
After Bairstow notched up his 16th Test fifty, he caught the top gear and piled up his final 49 runs at better than a run a ball where he also planted one ball from Duane Olivier into the pavilion. That was some sight to watch in Manchester!
Although he would be disappointed to not be able to score a hundred, there is not much to worry about him, in terms of keeping a spot in the playing XI. It was his sixth Test half-century in the last 10 innings and his average of 44.76 will ensure Bairstow remains in the team. He usually batted at No. 5 but this time around, as England picked an extra batsman to drop a bowler, Bairstow was lowered to No. 7. The fact that he managed to add 110 runs with the last four batsmen in the tail is nothing but commendable.
It was not the first time Bairstow was denied a century so ruthlessly by South Africa. “I was pretty annoyed but at the same time, if someone had said you’ll get 99 after starting on 33, you’d take it. I kicked myself as that’s twice now I’ve got out in the 90s against South Africa.” The other time was at Lord’s in 2012 in just Bairstow’s fourth Test match. However, his innings of 99 off 145 balls, which was inclusive of 14 boundaries and one six, will certainly play a role if England goes on to win this Test. At the end, South Africa were left victimized. First by Bairstow and then by Jimmy Anderson, whose five-for derailed the South African batting line-up and at stumps, South Africa were nine-down and still trailed by 142 runs.