Jonny Bairstow's latest epic proves there is beauty in England's imperfections

play
#PoliteEnquiries: Have England finally solved Bairstow? (5:32)

Matt and Vish take your questions on Bairstow, NZs bowling and Jamie Overton's kebab shop order. (5:32)

A well-known quirk of the press conference is that when the England men's Test side has a bad day, a coach is sent out to take the heat. And for all the eye-rolls at the sheer number of support staff employed by the ECB, well before the red- and white-ball schedules clashed, almost all of them have had screen-time over the last couple of years.

Which coach is the easy bit. For example, a tough day in the field means the bowling coach steps up, hence why Jon Lewis was brought out more times in Australia than sun-cream. Thus at 3:02pm on Friday, as England found themselves 55 for six at the end of the 12th over, with New Zealand's first-innings 329 looking twice as much, thoughts turned to who might be stepping into the "what went wrong today?" chair, given that Marcus Trescothick, the batting coach, is at home in Somerset dealing with Covid-19.

By stumps, with England 264 for six, just 65 behind but visibly under New Zealand's skin as Jonny Bairstow and Jamie Overton wrestled the initiative back in a quite spectacular 37.1-over partnership, perhaps Marilyn Monroe could have subbed in for Tres. Because the sentiment from the home dressing room was clear: if you can't handle this England team at 55 for six, then you sure as hell don't deserve them at 264 for six.

To be honest, who among us could handle the manner in which they lost those first six wickets? The first three, while understandable given the excellence of Trent Boult, reopened old wounds of top-order pain in the face of high-quality bowling. Joe Root's nibbly edge through to Tom Blundell off Tim Southee for just five was a reminder that even the most reliable can let you down. Ben Stokes' charge-and-plink off Neil Wagner's second ball, into the hands of Kane Williamson at a withdrawn mid-off was confirmation that every chaotic fling ends in pain, no matter if it lasts a week or just 13 balls.

When Ben Foakes' head fell to the off side to allow Wagner to ping him on the pads, it was only natural to doubt. Even after the previous two Tests, and especially after the last one in Nottingham, doubt is your insurance: as much for your front, to be able to say you knew it might have been a false dawn, as for your sanity. Because, really, how much tradition, conditioned behaviour and professional fear can be contorted in that time? Rome wasn't built in a day, but it certainly wasn't finished after three weeks. Then again, Bairstow wasn't around 2,700 years ago.

The most important aspect of what Brendon McCullum and Stokes are doing with this Test side is that it doesn't matter if we, the viewer, believe. It's a bit like WWE wrestling in that way: whether you think it's real or fake, those out in the middle have to buy into it completely. With back-to-back bombastic centuries, Bairstow has surged into the ring as England's biggest believer. This one, No.10 of his career, might even be better than the 136 that won the second Test.

"Fancy doing another Trent Bridge?" Bairstow joked with Stokes when they arrived together at 21 for four. He kept up his side of the deal, reaching that century in just 95 deliveries with clean strikes that, come to think of it, could not have been more different to what he unfurled in that final session in Nottingham. There were no sixes (yet anyway), yet most of his 21 fours still elicited the same hooting and hollering.

The real malice came after he had passed fifty for the 32nd time. Wagner opted to switch from the full length he started with for the bumper routine he has toured the world over. With men out on the leg side, Bairstow bunted the "change-up" fuller delivery back over the left-armer's head for four to move to 77.

By then Overton had grown into the sidekick role that Stokes had played at Trent Bridge, cracking a pull shot off a Wagner bumper in front of square for four to move him to a maiden half-century. Then came a six into the Western Terrace, followed by a drive down the ground, then a slap through cover: 14 runs taken off Wagner's ninth over, and off he sidled with much to rue. Wagner should have pushed for a review for an early leg-before shout against Overton that would have reduced England to 63 for seven. He also missed a tricky caught-and-bowled that would have sent Bairstow packing on 27. And compounding it all was the fact his famed short-ball trick was not only failing, but being used against him.

Who knows how this period might have gone if Wagner, now aged 36, had not come into this Test cold? Either way, he found himself in the eye of an 11-over storm, beginning after a maiden in the 26th over, in which 89 runs were scored. The riot continued on, and reached fever pitch when a crisp on-drive took Bairstow to three figures.

Of his four hundreds in 2022, this had the best celebration yet. Not one of "told you so", or adrenalin-junkie rage, but serene satisfaction. An innings of such personality is nothing new, as shown by the fact his name features in England's record sixth- and seventh-wicket partnerships: the latter from Friday in Leeds, the former way back in 2016 when he and Stokes went wild in Cape Town.

There is still a deficit of 65 to be worked at, and three more days for plenty of twists and turns ahead of the conclusion of this series. But day two of this final showdown felt like a first step towards getting the people on-side. Bairstow alluded to as much in his press conference "Our job is to inspire the next generation, our job is to make people want to watch cricket, our job is to put bums on seats here and I think people might have wanted to watch the brand of cricket we are playing."

Monroe, this time, was kept back. But her words in a previous life come to mind: imperfection is beauty, madness is genius and it's better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring. It feels particularly relevant to the Test side. At a different time, it might have been relevant to Bairstow.

But having spent so long trying to fit into this format by curbing enthusiasm, readjusting footwork and attuning his hands, all while losing his individuality, he's never been more himself. And in an imperfect team striving to not be boring, he is at his most exciting while being its perfect fit.