AFTER the disappointment of Friday’s washout, Headingley was yesterday resplendent in sunshine throughout an engaging day’s cricket.
England captain Alastair Cook won the toss and elected to bat without hesitation. It proved successful, at least until the second new ball, but any score around 300 was going to be good as the ball moved around all day.
In the end 337 for seven represented a fine day’s work for England, enhanced by a brisk late 38 from Matt Prior, accompanied by 21 from Graeme Swann.
Nevertheless, Cook will be rather thankful to two local boys, Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow, who both received loud welcomes when they walked to the crease and they did not disappoint the Yorkshire faithful as their fifth-wicket partnership of 124 ensured it was England’s day. The game was in the balance and New Zealand believed one more wicket would expose the lower order. Matt Prior, low on confidence after his pair at Lord’s, was followed only by the bowlers.
Instead the two young Yorkshire players batted impressively and often with great joy. They have known each other from age group cricket through to the professional game and are great mates. This bond clearly helped both of them.
Huge cheers from the parochial crowd helped as well, with every boundary received as if it was the winning run in any match between the white and red rose counties but none more so than the fine cut that raised Root’s century.
It was a superb innings, his maiden Test century and for a proud Sheffield lad he is now the only Yorkshireman to have scored his first Test century at Headingley. His has been an extraordinary rise from debuting in India in the winter to now being a pivotal part of the England middle order.
With Kevin Pietersen injured it is just as well he has, otherwise England would be struggling.
He is a throwback rather than a modern batsman. The vogue today is for strong hitters schooled on bowling machines with big forward strides and hard, powerful hands hitting through the line of the ball. On flat wickets it is imposing but, when the ball swings or nips off the pitch, it finds edges and gaps between bat and pad.
Root’s great mate Bairstow exemplifies this with a much brasher, more aggressive style. Root does none of that. He uses finesse and touch, a rapier rather than a bludgeon.
It was noticeable from the moment he scratched guard that he played the ball much later than others and was prepared to move back much more. He waited for the ball to come completely to him and played it right under his nose with soft hands.
It is a great skill but it is how most batsmen used to play in bygone decades. Harder pitches, bigger bats and a much more aggressive tempo to the game in general have diminished that way of playing but it has many merits and Root is a wonderful exponent. It suits his temperament. He is as phlegmatic and grounded as any senior, wizened old “pro”, which, considering he is only 22 years old, is magnificent.
But he is not some stodgy old sod blocking for dear life and hanging on in hope of a score. He accumulates at a steady tempo but eschews unnecessary risk, particularly early in an innings. As Root spends more time at the crease he does unfurl some wonderful shots but never in a grandstanding manner, more like a slightly flamboyant surgeon.
And the proof that, while adopting the technique of years ago to defend, he is not just a newer version of a crusty old timer, is his use of sweeps and reverse sweeps in all forms of the game. Where the reverse paddle used to be the sole preserve of one-day cricket, the younger generation brought up on T20 have practised varying scoops, paddles, flicks and sweeps so much that they are totally confident using them all the time.
Bairstow is similar in that regard and, after a rather nervy start, he blossomed with some lovely drives and clips through midwicket. It was a shame for the crowd that the new ball did for him as well as Root but his 64 was an important innings, for himself as he is probably the weakest contender when Pietersen returns, but also for the selectors.
Despite the decree from management that the Ashes must not be mentioned, all know that Pietersen, injury notwithstanding, will come back in to the team and so someone has to make way.
The only way to avoid that is to make runs. Nick Compton failed once more and with Root so composed and productive in the middle order, it is easy to consider him partnering Cook which would give Bairstow a lifeline.
For England today, though, the need is for the ball to continue to swing once New Zealand are in. If it does then wickets should fall and the Test match will progress swiftly.