FOR A long time it looked as though history was going to repeat itself and that Jonny Bairstow would clinch another one-day series for England against New Zealand.
The Yorkshireman did so when the sides last locked horns in a five-match rubber in 2015, scoring an unbeaten 83 at Chester-le-Street to guide his side to a three-wicket win and a 3-2 series triumph.
But Bairstow’s 138 in Dunedin yesterday – ably supported by Joe Root’s 102 – was superseded by Ross Taylor’s unbeaten 181 for the Kiwis, who overhauled England’s 335 to win by five wickets with three balls to spare.
It was a sobering defeat for the tourists, who were eyeing 400-plus when Bairstow fell with the score 267-1 in the 38th over, England collapsing to 288-7 at one stage through overconfident, careless batting.
Instead of holding an unassailable 3-1 lead going into the final game of the series in Christchurch, which starts at 10pm tomorrow, UK time, England thus find themselves once more locked at 2-2 against New Zealand.
Despite possessing arguably the inferior combination, the Kiwis have plenty of talent and fighting spirit, epitomised by the way that Taylor battled through a thigh injury to produce what his captain Kane Williamson, the Yorkshire batsman, called “one of the best one-day knocks we’ve seen”.
But England remain slight favourites, if only for an all-round batting strength which, yesterday’s wobble excepted, would give any opponent sleepless nights.
It was summed up at the University Oval by the brilliant Bairstow, who looked in such good form that one would not bet against him clinching a second successive one-day series against the Kiwis in Christchurch instead.
Much has changed since Bairstow’s series-sealing display against New Zealand three years ago, when he was drafted in at Chester-le-Street only as a late replacement for the injured Jos Buttler.
Despite guiding England home in tense circumstances on that occasion, when he helped them recover from 45-5 in pursuit of a rain-revised target of 192, Bairstow remained in-and-out of the one-day team, as much a victim of England’s all-round batting strength as opposition bowlers.
For Bairstow, whose place now seems as secure as anyone’s, this represents a personal triumph, given the extent to which he has had to fight to stay in the team. It was as if England used to regard him as the easiest man to drop, but talent has a habit of shining through.Chris Waters
But in recent months he has found his niche in the opener’s role, partnering the swashbuckling Jason Roy as both men continue to keep out the equally swashbuckling Alex Hales.
If Hales cannot get into the side, so the theory goes, England must have a seriously strong one-day side.
Not so long ago, many of us were saying exactly the same thing about Bairstow.
Yesterday’s century was Bairstow’s third in ODI cricket in the past six months, following unbeaten hundreds against West Indies.
It was also a timely reminder of his skills, ones which have adapted to various positions in various formats.
Although it would be stretching it to say that Bairstow needed a score after six innings without an ODI fifty prior to this game, such is the competition for places that no one can take their spot for granted – with the possible exception of captain Eoin Morgan, who would have no need of a bullet-proof vest.
With Hales breathing down his neck, Bairstow will be acutely aware that runs is the best repellent to any challenge from the sidelines, his latest masterclass spanning 106 balls and containing 14 fours and seven sixes.
It is, of course, a nice problem for England to have, with Ben Stokes’s return having increased competition. England’s batting order for next year’s World Cup is more or less finalised, with only a dramatic loss of form likely to open the door to the next in line.
For Bairstow, whose place now seems as secure as anyone’s, this represents a personal triumph, given the extent to which he has had to fight to stay in the team. It was as if England used to regard him as the easiest man to drop, but talent has a habit of shining through.
Plenty will be made of yesterday’s collapse, but the England batsmen have credit in the bank.
Without wishing to lapse into coach-speak, the positive is that England still scored 335 despite that collapse.
If they can still do that on their bad days, as it were, then it is not difficult to see why they have taken their one-day game to a whole new level.