In 1996, at the annual Fred Haskins dinner, Tiger Woods was approached by a suit after receiving the evening’s main award. ‘I think you’re gonna be the next great one,’ said the man to Tiger with a nod to Jack Nicklaus, ‘but those are mighty big shoes to fill.’ ‘Got big feet,’ was Tiger’s reply.
Neither Ian Bell, nor Jonny Bairstow, had been asked about their reaction to the omission of Kevin Pietersen in the build-up to this game but had they been it is unlikely either would have Tiger’s brazen self-confidence. It is not in Bell’s taciturn nature, and as for Bairstow, well, two Test matches without success is not much of a foundation for bragging of any sort, no matter how talented you are.
But that was the question asked of both these players in Pietersen’s absence. As well as moving up to the number four position, Bell had to somehow embrace his position as the most senior player in the middle order, with all the responsibility that entails. Bairstow, for his part, was Pietersen’s direct replacement. Jolly big shoes, indeed, which both did their best to fill yesterday, with a brace of half-centuries and a partnership of 124 that allowed England to keep within touching distance of South Africa.
Bell and Bairstow came together in the 24th over at the loss of James Taylor, caught at slip off Morne Morkel, and finding life much tougher one place higher in the order than at Headingley and unable to quietly go about his business in somebody else’s slipstream, as he had there. The score at this stage was 54-4, exactly the same score South Africa had been before lunch on the first day when Jacques Kallis had been given out off Steven Finn.
Eventually, South Africa had rallied to 309, a competitive total, but nothing more than that on a decent pitch. Vernon Philander had taken his career best Test score to 61, shepherding the South African tail in the morning to good effect with useful contributions from Dale Steyn and Morkel. But this, you sensed, was an opportunity for England, one of their first in what has been a difficult series. A first innings lead, and preferably a sizeable one at that, was the order of the day.
Strauss, given a rousing reception, had been harried by Morkel and pocketed by him for the eighth time on the stroke of lunch when he felt for a ball of good length but failed to locate it. Jonathan Trott, out of nick for the first time in his England career, had missed a straight ball from Steyn and Alastair Cook had edged a ball that was anything but straight, so that when Bell and Bairstow joined forces England were in a hole of their own making.
Inevitably, after his travails against West Indies, South Africa were quick to test Bairstow against the short ball. Graeme Smith, never one to let a weakness, imagined or otherwise, go by, set a short leg and a leg gully for Morkel and Bairstow steeled himself for what was to come. He played the bouncers that came with relative comfort, ducking and swaying but, crucially keeping his eyes on the ball and his gloves out of the way, although there was nothing noticeably different from how he had looked to play against West Indies, except for the presence of a chest guard.
This was a serious test of his credentials. After a wayward start, Morkel was bowling superbly; fast, hostile and accurate from the Nursery End; Steyn, perhaps not a hundred percent fit, was fit enough and hurtling in from the Pavilion End; Philander was miserly, conceding no more than two per over, and Kallis’s presence as fifth seamer meant that there was no let up as well as, at the same time, offering some threat to Bell who had not picked his swing too easily in the series so far.
Similar of build, it was not easy to tell the two apart, but at the crease Bell is more fluent in his movements and easier on the eye; Bairstow, wider in his stance and tenser, is more willing to thrash the ball rather than caress it, as is Bell’s wont. With a pulled four of Morkel, it was clear Bairstow was starting to find his feet, and when he took Imran Tahir, the leg-spinner, for three fours and 13 off an over, mainly through the leg-side, he began to look as if he belonged.
After tea, Bairstow’s fifty came first, when he thick-edged Morkel to the third man fence; Bell’s shortly afterwards when he sent Kallis in the same direction, albeit with a little more control. The junior partner had taken 47 balls fewer, a nod perhaps to the kind of role Bairstow will look to fill in years to come, as well as the imperative for quick scoring foisted upon today’s young players. When he cut Philander to the cover boundary to go to 64 he became the highest scorer in the match.
The partnership between the two was a substantial one, runs fashioned against a proper Test match attack, at a time when England needed them and it restored some balance to the game when England were wobbling. It was ended when Bell drove loosely at the disciplined Philander and edged to fourth slip where Alviro Petersen took a sharp, low catch to further highlight the tourists’ excellence in this area of the game. Earlier, Smith and Kallis had taken good catches of their own in the same arc.
Prior joined Bairstow, but with the close looming, he was forced to play more conservatively than is his wont and Bairstow reined in his own natural instincts, so that the play lost its edge, something that will return, without doubt, in the morning when the direction of the game will be further decided. For now, it is in the balance.
Watching on from the stands was Bairstow’s delightful mother, Janet, and his sister and they were sat in the posh seats next to Lord Coe. When young Jonny got his fifty, his mother clenched her fist and pumped the air in a proper Northern salute. Forget the size of the feet, in Test cricket it’s the size of the heart that counts. Bairstow, by the looks of things, has a big one.