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Bancroft's masterstroke, on & off the field

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Cameron_Bancroft_Australia_Cricket"No it didn’t knock me over. I’ve actually got the heaviest head in the West Australian squad. There’s an actual measurement for it. So I took the blow quite well and moved on from it. It was a good hit. Play on," Cameron Bancroft gave the best press conference in the history of cricket. With an impressively straight face (Gosh, how did he manage that straight face?), he answered one ridiculously silly question after another regarding England wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow’s head-butt incident. As Bancroft went on, Australian captain Steve Smith, sitting next to him, couldn't control his laughter.

The conference took place after Australia's victory in the opening Test of the Ashes in Brisbane, where Smith was the Player of the Match for his fighting century in the first innings. Apart from his batting, he outplayed his counterpart with his innovative captaincy. Bancroft, the debutant, and David Warner ensured Australia did not lose a wicket in the final innings during their chase of 170.

Bancroft's best – Press Conference or 82*?  

The question is, will Bancroft be remembered for his unbeaten 82 in the fourth innings or for the press conference where he had everyone in splits? While his straight-faced responses may have left Bairstow flustered, the people in the room were in splits. Millions of viewers around the world surely watched the video multiple times.

The head-butting incident took place in October, the day England landed in Perth. That night, Bairstow & Co. hung out in a bar where they met a few Western Australia players. The English keeper-batsman apparently greeted the strangers, Bancroft in particular, with a head-butt.

This meant Bairstow head-butted Bancroft even before the latter was picked for the Ashes squad. Four weeks later, Bancroft oversaw the Australian victory at the Gabba with his unbeaten 82. He even entered history books when he and Warner became the only opening pair to put up an unbeaten 173-run stand in a successful fourth innings chase.

While the head-butt was not malicious, it was still a weird first impression for two people who had just met. Considering the rivalry between England and Australia, it was foolish of Bairstow to do something like that.

What likely made the mental situation worse for Bairstow was that this incident came soon after he was fined £1,000 for being out late when Ben Stokes was involved in a Bristol street brawl.

More importantly, the Australians were well aware of Bairstow’s guilt. Until day four of the Gabba Test, the incident was still a secret. However, the Australians decided to get under Bairstow’s skin and disclosed the incident to the media. In doing so, they had executed perhaps a very well-thought out sledging plan that would lead to England's mental disintegration.

A sledge here and there could panic him and other players too. The stump microphone recorded Warner telling James Anderson, "“you shouldn’t head-butt our mates.” And the plan worked brilliantly, as the way Bairstow threw away his wicket in the second innings was not impressive at all.

Bancroft - from villain to hero  

Focusing purely on Bancroft's on-field work: amidst the chaos that happened during the squad selection, he was roped in as Warner's 10th opening partner. When he received his maiden Test call, Bancroft was picked ahead of incumbent opener Matt Renshaw, who was axed for his poor scores in the recent domestic first-class matches despite expectations that he would have a sure place in the squad. The sudden change of plans of Cricket Australia left Australian supporters fuming.

Despite Renshaw being one of the top batsmen in Australia's recent series against Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, he was dropped. Bancroft needed to come up with something special to justify his selection. He had got the edge over Renshaw thanks to his unbeaten double ton for Western Australia a few weeks back, and Bancroft was clearly under tremendous pressure to perform.

His Test debut got off to a howler when he was dismissed early in the innings. He lasted at the crease for only 19 balls as he poked at a delivery outside off from Stuart Broad that went straight into the gloves of the keeper, Jonny Bairstow. However, the second innings would mend that damage for Bancroft.

Cricket has never been a simple sport but there are those rare occasions when easy opportunities land on your plate. When Bancroft and Warner walked in to open Australia's innings the second time, they had one of those chances. England had set a target of just 170 and there could not have been any better occasion for Bancroft to announce himself in cricket.

The fact that he chose to face the first delivery of the innings, as is his habit, showed he likes to get going with the challenge. Bancroft was lucky to have a sensible opening partner in Warner with him out there. The explosive Warner has an image of smashing centuries with ease and in a session. Chasing down a target of 170 in a day was not a big deal for him, but he chose the high road, for the good of both his side and his new young partner.

Had Warner finished the Test on the fourth day, the English bowlers would have got another day’s rest in addition to the four-day break for the Adelaide Test. So he and Bancroft ensured the Test dragged till the fifth day too. He resumed play on the final day on 60, while Bancroft was on 51 and Australia needed another 56 runs to seal the Test. Warner punched the ball for three runs and that took him to 63. Since it was the death anniversary of his good friend Phil Hughes, whose last score in cricket was 63, Warner looked at the heavens to acknowledge the moment.  

From there on, the crowd of 6,154 and the English team witnessed altogether different Warner, who never struck rashly again in the match. He never went after the bowlers and kept taking singles. A total of five times, Warner took a single off the first ball, four times from the second ball and three times from the third. It was quite evident what was happening; the senior man was giving Bancroft the chance to soak up as many overs as possible.

With four more Tests left in the series, it was vital for Bancroft to face as many deliveries as possible. In the first innings, he faced only 19 balls and that experience was not good enough for him as the rest of the Ashes lie ahead. By the time the second innings was done, he had survived 182 balls with an excellent score of 82. He had conquered a couple of best bowlers in Test cricket currently and he had successfully carried the momentum from the fourth day into the fifth without letting it affect his batting.

One thing is clear - be it the press conference or his unbeaten 82, Bancroft had owned the English men, both on and off the field. Bairstow and England ended up a laughing stock in front of the world. There are no prizes in guessing which team is in a better state of mind going into the Adelaide Test. 

 

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