England v Sri Lanka: Jonny Bairstow’s strength, skill and flair on show once again

England's Jonny Bairstow and Steven Finn put on 56 in 14 overs before the Yorkshireman's fine innings came to an end on 140 (Picture: Mike Egerton/PA).
England's Jonny Bairstow and Steven Finn put on 56 in 14 overs before the Yorkshireman's fine innings came to an end on 140 (Picture: Mike Egerton/PA).
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THEY said that he was not good enough to play Test cricket.

They said that he had a problem against the short ball.

They said that he was no more than a solid county player.

They still say that his wicketkeeping is not up to scratch.

People have said a lot about Jonny Bairstow, people who, in many cases, should really know better.

Now they must face the indisputable truth. They were wrong.

For the Yorkshireman is playing a different game at present.

As proved by his second Test hundred at Headingley yesterday, it is a game played by only the very best players.

In recent years, only Kevin Pietersen of England batsmen has dominated in Test cricket in the destructive manner that Bairstow could do now, with all due respect to the brilliant Ben Stokes.

Like Pietersen, Bairstow has the technical skill as well as the flair to produce consistently such thrilling displays.

Like Pietersen, too, he has a touch of genius about him, the ability to empty bars and send bowlers in search of a stiff drink or several.

If Bairstow had a drink last night, and one sincerely hopes that he did, it would rightly have been a glass of champagne.

For his 140 out of England’s 298, to which Sri Lanka replied with 91 and 1-0 after being made to follow-on, was almost Pietersen-esque in its audacious authority.

That it was achieved at Headingley, the ground where he plays for Yorkshire, and where his late father, David, did so too, made it all the more special.

As at Cape Town, where he hit his maiden Test hundred in January, Bairstow removed his helmet on reaching three figures and raised his head to the heavens.

The only difference was that he had a big smile on his face as opposed to a look of raw emotion, as if to say that he had already overcome his hardest cricketing hurdle.

It took Bairstow almost two years and 59 innings to score his maiden first-class hundred, since when he has hit 19 in 148 innings.

Do not be surprised if a similar thing now happens in Test cricket; after waiting more than three and a half years for a Test hundred, he now has two in the space of four games.

This one helped England from 83-5 after Stokes – his partner in crime at Cape Town – departed on day one.

It was the sort of situation that Bairstow relishes; he has often rescued Yorkshire from similar positions.

This time, Bairstow’s partner in crime was Alex Hales, with whom he had added 88 when England started day two on 171-5.

Bairstow had 54 and Hales 71, and in an eye-blink Bairstow had raced past him, with Hales managing just seven in the opening hour.

It was an hour in which the pair did not have everything their own way, with plenty of help on offer for bowlers.

But Bairstow continued from where he left off, crunching Shaminda Eranga to the cover boundary and deftly steering his next delivery to the third-man rope.

Bairstow contributed 67 to the 100 stand, raised from 145 balls, but he had a let-off on 70 when he was dropped by Nuwan Pradeep in his follow-through.

It was a presentable chance, to the bowler’s right, but he rather snatched at it as though thinking it was coming faster than it did.

Bairstow responded by producing an exquisite stroke, an on-drive to the foot of the pavilion off Dasun Shanaka.

In doing so, he made one of the hardest shots in the game look simple.

Hales, on 82, was also dropped, a diving Dimuth Karunaratne failing to seize the chance at second slip off Angelo Mathews.

But the reprieve was short-lived as Hales, after reining himself in so impressively, threw away the chance of a maiden Test hundred when he sliced spinner Rangana Herath to deep cover.

Hales, who scored 86 in just under five and a half hours, and who added 141 with Bairstow in 41 overs, looked as distraught as any man can have done on being dismissed.

“A mad moment,” said Geoffrey Boycott up in the commentary box.

Equally mad, or maddening, was the way that Moeen Ali and Stuart Broad fell in the space of four balls to Dushmantha Chameera, Moeen caught at short-leg and Broad playing-on from a wild drive.

It looked as if Bairstow might be left stranded before reaching three-figures, but he got there when he drove Chameera firmly to cover, where Kaushal Silva’s throw to the bowler’s end flew for two overthrows.

Bairstow and Steven Finn added 56 in 14 overs before Bairstow lofted Chameera to deep mid-on, the innings ending when Finn was stumped

Sri Lanka’s reply was soon in distress, the tourists losing three wickets in nine balls to Broad and James Anderson, all of them edges to Bairstow. They lost their fourth wicket to the first ball after tea when Dinesh Chandimal edged Stokes to third slip, where James Vince pulled off a fine diving catch.

Anderson trapped Mathews when a review would have saved him, and he followed up by having Shanaka caught behind and Herath held at fourth slip.

Sri Lanka slipped to 90-8 when Chameera was caught by Finn at mid-off off Broad, the same combination accounting for Lahiru Thirimanne.

Anderson took his fifth wicket – and Bairstow his fifth catch – when Eranga was caught down the leg-side, Sri Lanka falling eight short of avoiding the follow-on as they lost their last six wickets for 14 runs.