Boland Park, Paarl, 1 February 2020. Blue sky and not a bio-bubble or mask in sight. A practice match for England against a South Africa A side. A peculiar match, which included abandoning the score as the South African pretenders chased a total of 340 from the tourists in favour of a contrived 85 from sixty balls target — a fact that the sprinkling of spectators were blissfully ignorant of because of an Eskom intervention that deprived the ground of its electric scoreboard and PA system.
“What’s the score, Jonny?” someone shouted to England’s wicketkeeper, Bairstow. “No idea, mate,” came the cheerful reply. He seemed in a good mood, presumably because he had found form earlier in the day with a quick-fire century.
A few minutes later he provided an update. “They need 30 off 12” (or some such equation); “apparently,” he added with a sceptical but still jovial tone.
Afterwards he signed autographs and chatted amiably, without airs or graces, forcing me to reconsider my prior assessment of him as a typically grouchy, chip-on-the-shoulder Yorkshireman.
Last week he missed out on scoring the second fastest Test century by an Englishman by two balls — 77 to Gilbert Jessop’s 76 in 1902.
As I listened to the BBC’s Test Match Special radio coverage — and the increasingly delirious and disbelieving oohs and aahs from the likes of Phil Tufnell and Jonathan Agnew — my primary thought was that it couldn’t happen to a nicer bloke.
On Friday and Saturday he rose to similar heights, scoring the second fastest 150 by an Englishman in a Test. Interviewed afterwards, he side-stepped the weary clichés of modern sportsmen and women, and in response to a question from former captain Sir Alastair Cook about what changes in technique had triggered such resplendent form, put it down to simply watching the ball closely.
Because it was on his beloved home ground, in front of adoring locals on the famous Western Terrace at Headingley, this success clearly meant a great deal to Bairstow.
Here is a man who, when he reaches a milestone, looks to the skies in honour of his father, David, who, when Jonny was just a boy, took his own life. A tad stouter than his son, David was also a red-haired wicketkeeper, who played for Yorkshire and a few times for England in ODIs.
Listening to Bairstow speak is refreshing. “One of nature’s naturals,” as my late father would have put it. But for all his disinclination to attribute his two recent remarkable innings to anything in particular, pundits are inevitably seeking to join the dots with the change in leadership in English cricket.
After the disaster of the winter Ashes Tour, and the dismal sequel in the West Indies, when the “red-ball reset” proved to be anything but, the director of cricket (Ashley Giles) and the coach (Chris Silverwood) were fired and then Joe Root faced up to the inevitable and resigned the captaincy.
In came the straight-talking Rob Key as director of cricket, whose first job was to decide on who the new coach and captain should be. He opted for Ben Stokes — not a particularly hard decision because Stokes was the only player other than Root who could be sure of a place in the side at that point.
Then, more surprisingly, Key opted for the former hard-hitting Kiwi wicketkeeper-batter, Brendon McCullum, as coach.
Now England are on the verge of beating the world champion Test side, New Zealand, 3-0. Considering that they had won only one Test in the previous 17, this is quite a reversal of fortunes.
They have a newfound belief in their own ability and, especially, their ability to win a cricket game from almost any position, however apparently bleak. At Trent Bridge in the second Test, the Black Caps had scored 553 in their first innings, but still lost —the sixth highest first innings by a side going on to still lose the Test match.
To not collapse as the English team of just a few weeks ago would no doubt have done, and to keep their collective pecker up and then chase down 299 to win on the last day with almost contemptuous ease — England’s fifth highest chase of all time — shows how dramatically they have turned things around.
This stunning metamorphosis raises interesting questions about leadership at a time of crisis — what one might call “turnaround leadership” — that may well have a wider applicability, to, say, politics and government.
What is especially intriguing is that in terms of the make-up of the team, there has been little change in personnel. Well, apart that is from bringing back Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad who, as a good example of scrambled thinking, were dropped for the tour of the Caribbean, even though it was the batters not the bowlers who let England down in Australia.
But otherwise it has essentially been about getting a bunch of professional cricketers to perform far better. Lazy analysis abounds: the new leadership has “unshackled” the talent, each of whom are now “empowered” to “express themselves”.
And yet, what else can it be? There was no time for McCullum to tinker substantially with anyone’s technique. And, wisely, he’s chosen to remain in the shadows for the time being and has said barely a word to the media. He sits on the pavilion balcony with mirrored sun-glasses, chewing gum inscrutably.
Stokes, in contrast, wears his heart on his sleeve. It is plain for all to see that he is really enjoying the new captaincy role — all smiles and big heart, allied to some pretty nifty, instinctive tactical choices.
It may prove to be a premature judgment but, despite his lack of experience in captaincy, England may have found themselves a “natural leader”.
I use the expression advisedly, but mindful of the sage observation of distinguished commentator Michael Atherton, who had a torrid time as captain in the 1990s. At the close of Saturday’s play, Atherton noted that “leadership is far more nature than nurture”. He may well be right.
Perhaps, when and if things start to go wrong and the English media start to do what they do best, namely hack down the tall poppy that they have been so quick to build up, it will resemble the illusion of the weeks of “Ramaphoria” that followed South African politics’ own “red ball reset” in February 2018.
At the risk of stretching the comparison to breaking point, what is clear is that Cyril Ramaphosa was unable to raise the performance level of his cabinet — a similar case of a rather minimal change in the composition of the team following the coup d’état at the apex of government.
If Ramaphosa’s ascent to presidential leadership was to government here what Stokes’s was to English cricket there, then what the latter has which the former conspicuously lacks is a behind-the-scenes “enforcer” to establish a bold new ethos and mentality.
Judged on the basis of the evidence of these first three Tests against New Zealand, and on Ramaphosa’s four years in the Union Buildings, Cyril needs a Brendon McCullum. It just shows what a bit of decisiveness and a sense of purpose and intent from the top can achieve, even in a short period of time.
Dean Elgar and Mark Boucher will be watching the new English regime’s immediate success with considerable interest. The first Test between the Proteas and a resurgent England is just seven weeks away.