A bear prowled the worn area of grass at second slip, with the feline Joe Root to his immediate left. As he contemplated the next delivery, he pulled at his long-sleeved, cable knit jumper and hitched up his trousers. Between balls he repeatedly chewed at his huge paws.
And, after a morning of watching hostile but ultimately fruitless bowling from Jimmy Anderson, Ollie Robinson, Craig Overton and Sam Curran – the bear had his moment. The last ball before lunch was a ripper from Overton, a zipping short ball with marching energy that straightened at the last. KL Rahul, who had somehow survived an lbw in the tenth over, reviewing for a dare only to discover the ball really had just darted past leg stump, was tempted.
This time, there was no repeal. The bear swooped backwards and to his left to scoop up the juiciest salmon in the river. It was spectacular, a bobby-dazzler, the catch of the series, a wowzer beaten only this summer by Harleen Deol’s miracle on the boundary rope during the first T20 game against England Women.
Jonny Bairstow was thrilled. He lay on his back with his arms in the air, and was jumped on by Jos Buttler, by Root, whose catch he had pinched, his hands ready in anticipation at second slip, and a succession of jubilant teammates. And big bushy bearded Bairstow walked off the pitch with a beaming smile. It was the day’s magic moment for a Yorkshire crowd, who would roar on Jonny for every minute of every match if they could, from the still of the seats backing on to the rugby ground to the Bacchian excesses of the Western Stand.
Were one feeling mischievous, one might ask whether this acrobatic slurp-up represented a bit more than just a brilliant bit of fielding. Whether it might be a sign, to supremo Chris Silverwood watching on the Headingley balcony, that those prized gloves would be safe with Jonny.
Jos Buttler, the current incumbent behind the stumps, is due to miss either the next Test at The Oval or the fifth and final Test at Old Trafford because his wife, Louise, is expecting their second child, due on 10 September.
Buttler, tired veteran of many bubbles, is also the senior player who has made the loudest noises about possibly missing the Ashes tour pencilled in to take place this winter but still to be thrashed out between the ECB and Cricket Australia. He has already withdrawn from the Rajasthan Royals side which will compete in the IPL, due to restart next month after being suspended in May because of Covid.
Buttler told the Sunday Times last week: “One of the challenges is working out where the line is where you say I can’t do that. I’ve sacrificed a lot for cricket and my wife and family have sacrificed a lot. You have to be open to that [saying no]. It would be incredibly disappointing if some players feel like they can’t do it, but we’re in a world at the moment where that is a possibility.”
In the absence of Buttler Bairstow once more seems the obvious candidate to take over in the wicketkeeping ping-pong that has been an England hallmark since Matt Prior lost his place. Surrey’s Ben Foakes is out for the season after suffering a freak injury, slipping in his socks in the dressing room and tearing his left hamstring, missing his chance to play in the New Zealand series when both Buttler and Bairstow were rested.
Gloucestershire keeper James Bracey, called up as replacement for Foakes, much to his own surprise, had a torrid time behind the stumps during that series, and was gently sent back to Bristol to lick his wounds.
Middlesex’s John Simpson was picked in the shadow white ball squad that played Pakistan when the main squad were zipped by Covid, and did a smashing job. But at 33 he is unlikely to be the answer England are looking for. Sam Billings, the reserve keeper for the New Zealand series, with over fifty white-ball caps to his name, waits in the wings.
But he would have to get past Bairstow first, who wants the gloves, who has always wanted the gloves . “It’s embedded in my DNA, I’m afraid,” he told Wisden Cricket Monthly two years ago. And under the floodlights on a Headingley morning, the grey clouds rolling in on a celestial conveyor belt, he proved the old reflexes were still there.