HEADINGLEY, LEEDS — Ask Test cricketers of any stripes for the unifying aspects of their trade and they’ll likely reach for pain, suffering and struggle. Jamie Overton is one of them now.
Sure, it looks pretty good being Jonny Bairstow at the moment. Everything England’s number five touches turns to gold if he hasn’t already clattered it through the covers in the blink of an eye.
But Bairstow has reached the form of his life in his 86th Test after a decade at the highest level. It has not all been sunshine and roses up until this point. Far from it.
When the home favourite masterminded England’s recovery from the depths of 55/6 in their first innings on Friday, he had debutant Overton for company. A meaty lower-order hitter, Overton played a full part in a record seventh-wicket stand for his country.
By the close on day two, he’d thrashed 12 fours and clobbered a couple of mighty sixes, including one into a delirious Western Terrace. This Test match cricket lark seemed like a complete hoot.
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Then Saturday morning happened and Overton’s time at the crease would have felt tortured had Bairstow not been swaggering his way to a majestic 162 at the other end. The fast bowling all-rounder was batting and moving like his 6ft 5ins frame had just acquired a new set of limbs. There were evident nerves and maybe also a little tiredness.
“Not great,” Overton said with a rueful grin when asked how he slept on Friday night with a potential Test century looming on the horizon. “I was tossing and turning quite a lot. I was always going to be a little bit nervous but I felt like I was in a great place this morning.”
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Tim Southee took the day’s first over from the Kirkstall Lane End and Overton had an ungainly waft at a short ball. Bairstow then called his partner through for a quick two, meaning Overton had to collapse into a full-length dive and broke his pad strap. Throw in an edge short of second slip and a couple of plays and misses at Trent Boult and it didn’t look like such a great place anymore.
The brief honeymoon was over and Overton was under Test cricket’s spell. He’d shown us his slogging, now this was just a slog. There was one more boundary through the covers — a false dawn, another currency the sport trades giddily in — and then an edge caught by Daryl Mitchell off Boult meant he was done on 97.
There is no scenario where a debut 97 is a failure, especially for a player picked primarily for his prowess as a bowler. But at that moment, when the air was briefly sucked out of an expectant Headingley and Bairstow placed a consoling arm around his teammate, it certainly felt like it.
“The ball was there to hit and I just hit it to the wrong place,” was Overton’s pleasingly uncomplicated assessment. “I think you can look at it both ways. Obviously I’m delighted to get 97 in the first place.”
Stuart Broad shifted the dial from nervous to nerveless and to smash a quickfire 42 and help England to a priceless 31-run lead. Then it was over to Overton’s main job of getting New Zealand batters out.
That proved easier said than done during an afternoon session where batting looked a pleasant pastime, especially for Tom Latham who tucked in as Overton, Broad and – in a fairly galling spell of four overs costing 30 runs – captain Ben Stokes failed to hit their lines or offer much in the way of a threat.
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Toil and struggle were to the fore and familiar terrain for a heart-to-heart of sorts at tea.
“We didn’t go for loads of ruins but we didn’t feel like we bowled and fielded the way we wanted to,” Overton said. “Coming out after tea, it was just about trying to enjoy ourselves, put the New Zealand guys under pressure and that’s what we did.”
The handy thing about Test cricket’s pain equation is it’s a two-way street. If you’re not suffering it, you can be the player dishing it out. As a hulking presence who can propel the ball at speeds around 90mph, Overton is at home in the latter role.
With the first ball of the evening session, he persuaded Latham to edge behind. England sensed an opening and in Overton they had a sledgehammer to work away at it. Devon Conway arrived at the crease and was cracked on the head by a nasty bouncer. The whole mood of the contest had shifted.
🗣️ “Straight away, STRAIGHT AWAY.”
Jamie Overton strikes with his very first ball right after tea ⚡
— Sky Sports Cricket (@SkyCricket)
“I like to put my hand up in those sort of situations when things are quite tough. I’m given the ball and I try to make the most of it,” he explained. “It was obviously a great feeling to get that wicket and get on the train with everyone else.”
The Saturday evening weather proved as changeable as the contest, with Conway caught brilliantly by Ollie Pope off Joe Root at short leg from the first ball of the restart. The door Overton had prised open was a little more ajar. By the time the excellent Matty Potts removed Kane Williamson for the third time in four innings and Henry Nicholls steered a return catch back to Jack Leach, England were running gleefully through it.
A boisterous crowd revelled in every moment and Overton had more than played his part in amping them up for the second evening in a row. He can look forward to at least a few more goes on Test cricket’s irresistible carousel of despair and joy.