OLD TRAFFORD — On a day billed as Hollywood’s biggest in years, perhaps the best cinema was on show at Old Trafford. It was just eight overs, running time: less than an hour, yet this grand theatre chronicled the psychological massacre of the world Test champions.
Jonny Bairstow, our antagonistic protagonist, was angry, a red-haired, red-hot ball of Yorkshire fury.
He remembered the total humiliation trudging off at Lord’s, hating Alex Carey for throwing that ball and Pat Cummins for upholding the appeal and himself, most of all himself, for losing concentration.
He remembered every column inch and cheap Twitter critic calling for his place in the England squad, denigrating his livelihood and raison d’etre. He wanted the Aussies to feel the hot ears and hot heads, feel their stomachs plummet, feel their hearts quicken and mouths arid. This was hatred manifest, and boy did it manifest.
His partner-in-crime-fighting was James Anderson. He was angry too. Batting is one of his least favourite things to do in the world. He is, in true Lethal Weapon style, too old for this s**t. But through an unwavering love of the sport and loyalty to those who still allow him to play it, he was here.
Largely, the villains were irrelevant. Perhaps the most formidable pace attack of the age were reduced to anonymous henchmen. Within the confines of the scene, Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood existed only to be destroyed, merely dramatic vehicles in this musing on good’s eternal triumph over evil.
There had been a prequel, but it wasn’t quite as good. Bairstow only had four boundaries in the 49 runs off 50 balls he had before Anderson joined him under the rejuvenated Manchester sun. Rain was expected, but not even Mother Nature would have the poor taste to spoil this.
The opening scene took Bairstow to fifty, shaving Starc’s nuts nude with one flick off the hip over the boundary rope. It was brutal and dismissive, a gunshot to the head without even having the decency to look his victim in the eye.
The ensuing half-century celebration was barely worthy of the name. The bat went up, but a smile did not. It’s not that he enjoys revenge, it’s just something he has to do. Now he has become death, the destroyer of balls and minds.
The second ball was a scene setter, a near-90 mph yorker dug out, followed by a shriek, arms lobbed forward. The words said “No run” but the body language screamed “get off the tracks, that train isn’t stopping”. It wasn’t.
And so it continued. Starc went for another whipped four to end the over, and then came Hazlewood. He had a five-fer already, the only Australian bowler still enjoying some semblance of dignity, despite going for over 100 runs.
This was when the farce began, “Carry On Stumping” starring Alex Carey and irony. Anderson was on strike, somewhere Lancashire’s finest is neither comfortable nor supposed to be. Bairstow knew this needed to change, so called his partner through after a Hazlewood bouncer landed in his wicketkeeper’s gloves. Carey attempted the run out, which would have hit a 27th stump if it existed. England, for reasons previously established, quite enjoyed this.
Anderson and Bairstow would attempt the speed swap twice more, and Carey would miss the stumps on both occasions. Basic function completely deserted one of the world’s most secure glovemen, as it had all his teammates.
Not wanting to subject his esteemed colleague to any further harassment, Cummins brought himself on for Starc. Of the four sixes Bairstow dispatched with varying disdain, the most vengeful was a violently clean effort punting the Australian captain long beyond deep midwicket. By then Cummins, at his best as fine a specimen of modern man as exists, was reduced to a hungover teen, wanting only a hug and a Berocca in all the world. This had happened twice in two days. He’s very tired.
Therein lies a serious problem for the visitors. The first collapse can be a moment, a mistake, a mere series of unfortunate events. But the second time sticks. Fool me once, and all that. England were on their way to a fifth-highest home total against Australia and their highest home Ashes score since 1985. This Test has just happened to the Aussies.
This is also where the Bairstow vs Ben Foakes debate ends. The argument has always been statistical, but there is currently no CricViz metric analysing the unmanageably demonic power of pure loathing.
This masterpiece of modern entertainment then got the ending it warranted. Leave everyone wanting more, especially your leading man.
Anderson’s pads were blown up by a weapon of Oppenheimer proportions in Cameron Green. Bairstow, legally forced to delay his quest for vengeance from this life to the next, remains forever 99* from 81 balls, still waiting for a first Test century while keeping wicket since March 2018.
History may judge this as the innings that won the Ashes, a raw, visceral thing impossible to mentally recover from. Regardless, it will always have value in itself, a timeless performance piece of real-time psychological destruction and the John Wick-esque power of a man scorned. This was cricket as art, and it was utterly engrossing.