Bairstow deserves to be acclaimed like a centurion

The five missing runs were irrelevant. He had more than done his job

Lord's

The best 95 I've ever seen. Michael Vaughan added that it would have been the finest maiden hundred at Lord's in his experience. That is some testimonial from the former England captain.

Stripping away the Tyke associations, the claim has some merit. Against this attack, in the context of a match between the two best teams in the world with the No 1 ranking at stake, Jonny Bairstow's score was comfortably the highest of the contest so far.

The response of his slayer, Morne Morkel, a double-fisted salute, told of the importance of the knock, and his wicket. The reception as Bairstow approached the pavilion steps was as almost as great as it would have been had he converted his ton. The novice had held the innings together, just as the man he replaced, Kevin Pietersen, might have done.

In this, a low-scoring match, the five missing runs were irrelevant. Bairstow had more than done his job.

"I came here in great nick and full of confidence," Bairstow said. "I was pleased to get 95 but obviously disappointed to miss out on a century by just five runs. But they are a world-class attack. Playing the likes of them was never going to be easy.

"It was obviously difficult coming in four down but I have been in that situation a few times with Yorkshire. I quite enjoy it under the pump."

The remorseless assault on England's lower order reflected the balance of power between these teams. South Africa bowl a little quicker and bat a little deeper. The visitors' habit of losing the final Test of a series does not look like recurring here. They have in all areas, apart from the twin eruptions of Pietersen and Stuart Broad at Headingley, enjoyed the better of this painfully truncated series.

England approached their innings conservatively, avoiding at all costs the possibility of finding themselves in a losing position instead of seeking every opportunity to win. They were, in effect, jailed by circumstance, locked into a negative vortex established in that coruscating First Test at The Oval, where Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis batted England into oblivion. No shame in losing to this South African team, if that indeed comes to pass. They stand only a top-class spinner short of comparison with the best.

As he crept closer to a place on the Lord's honours board, Bairstow suffered a commensurate tightening of limbs. It is not that he froze, or choked. Rather he was gradually absorbed by the match dynamic. His fall so close to the batsman's gold standard inevitably tempts us to focus not on what was already a significant achievement but what might have been. And so for a brief moment 95 was seen in negative terms, as the failure to post a century, not the high watermark that in fact it was.

Bairstow sensed that fate was sucking him into a trap. He fought against it as best he could. Each Morkel ball faced while on 95, and there were 15 in total, was followed by a characteristic wander in the direction of square leg, an instinctive readjustment of his headguard, a moment to compose himself then back to the crease. There must be a thousand thoughts crowding the head a young cricketer within a boundary of his first Test ton, and at Lord's of all places. The steps away from the crease were part of the process designed to keep them out.

At the other end, Graeme Swann was smashing Dale Steyn for successive boundaries, one a top-edged slash to third man, the other a hook to midwicket. This rash impulse was not available to Bairstow, whose innings was characterised as much by the deliveries he let go as those into which he climbed.

Perhaps distracted by the Swann cameo, Bairstow had a waft at Morkel, and then another. Hearts leapt. The first ball of Morkel's next over he was gone, castled after more than six hours at the crease.

There was no complaint. Good lad. He simply turned on his heels and headed for the pavilion.

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