Jonny Bairstow seizes his chance to keep South Africa at bay
South Africa 309 England 208-5: Young Yorkshireman leads recovery but England have work cut out to level series
It turns out that no man is indispensable. The 22-year-old Yorkshireman selected to replace the most controversial player in the game salvaged England's summer yesterday from a potentially horrific conclusion.
Jonny Bairstow is no Kevin Pietersen – or not yet anyway – but his stoicism and measured batting averted a crisis that was rapidly engulfing England on the second day of the third Test. At 54 for 4 when he came in, another wicket then would probably have meant curtains for match, series and No 1 world ranking.
South Africa were all over England, but Bairstow repelled them. Every ball he faced on a captivating afternoon, and by the close there had been 137 of them on his way to an unbeaten 72, served as a reminder of Pietersen's absence.
There was not much enthusiasm for Bairstow's recall last Sunday when Pietersen was dropped amid suggestions that he had betrayed the team ethos. That saga rumbles on behind the scenes but much more of this and it will be redundant whatever peace treaty is crafted.
Bairstow played three Tests against West Indies earlier this season and after a crisply promising start he was found to be suspect against fast, short-pitched bowling. In this he is no different to around 95 per cent of batsmen in world cricket, but England felt he was not yet ready.
A century for England Lions against Australia A persuaded them to reconsider. In truth, there was nowhere else to go once they had ditched Pietersen. Bairstow was subjected to a bouncer barrage at the start yesterday but if he was apprehensive he avoided trouble.
Both Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, who had created mayhem in England's upper order, were extremely menacing. Necessarily slow at the start, England were in danger of drying up. But Bairstow and Ian Bell put on 124 for the fifth wicket, carefully, painstakingly and with growing authority on a pitch gradually denying help to bowlers.
Bell was out towards the end, undone by the incessant probing outside the off-stump of the third member of South Africa's seam triumvirate, Vernon Philander. He had beaten him twice already in that over, he deserved the wicket.
This exposed England again. They finished on 208 for 5, 101 behind South Africa. There is a long way to go to for England and to have a realistic aspiration to win the match and level the rubber they must forge a lead of around 100 runs.
But they are still in there with a chance despite the overwhelming thought that South Africa are truly the superior team. That will not matter a jot if England can continue to stand up to them. It will be beginning to dawn on South Africa that they have lost the final Test of the series on all four of their most recent tours to this country.
England took too long to work their way through to the end of South Africa's first innings. From the parlous state of 54 for 4, the partnerships for the next five wickets were 51, 58, 72, 35 and 37, all effective, all irritating.
England had to take the view that they would have settled for dismissing the tourists for 309 at the start of the match, but then sunnier prospects loomed into view. The manner in which South Africa's later order applied themselves epitomised their whole approach to this series and maybe to their cricket in general. They were not going to make it easy.
It was Philander who detained England for another hour yesterday, moving to his first Test half-century. He was assisted initially by Steyn, who eventually edged a drive to second slip and then by Morkel whose cut was excellently caught by Matt Prior swooping low in front of first slip.
When Prior stumped Philander, it brought his total of victims in the innings to six. It is the second time he achieved the landmark.
England's first objective was to survive until lunch. They had all but done so when disaster struck. Alastair Cook had looked to be in trouble, his feet refusing to obey the commands of his brain and he was repeatedly passed by Philander's late swing.
But it was Andrew Strauss who departed. He had seemed comfortable but inexplicably missed one that came back off the slope. Perhaps, for a split second with three balls to the break, he assumed he was already there.
The awkward days before this match and the fact that it was his 100th Test combined to ensure the ground willed him to make a century. If it was sad that he fell 80 runs short it was also the catalyst for catastrophe.
For an hour after lunch South Africa's bowlers were as remorseless as they had been at The Oval in the opening Test. Throughout this series they have formed a more potent alliance than England's much-vaunted bunch and this was thrilling stuff.
Steyn had Trott leg before on review, the ball going on with the slope, and three balls later enticed Cook to push to second slip where Jacques Kallis made the catch deceptively simple.
South Africa's tails were up high enough to reach the top of the pavilion and it was into this atmosphere that James Taylor strolled for his second Test innings. He had just begin to shed his initial nerves when he parried outside off-stump and was caught low by Graeme Smith at first slip. The tourists' catching in the cordon this summer as been almost nonchalantly proficient.
Another wicket seemed inevitable. The follow on total of 110 looked a light year away then.
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