Fresh from back-to-back hundreds in a career-best series against New Zealand, and four overall this year, Bairstow raced to 91 not out in his side’s 200 for six on the third morning in Birmingham.
Bairstow hit 12 fours and two sixes as he turned a difficult start into a dominant outing but Ben Stokes’ attempts to impose himself on a high-class seam attack were less successful.
He was dropped on 18 and 25 but did not heed his warnings, caught from the very next ball after his second reprieve.
England were in a hole at the start of the day, resuming 332 behind on 84 for five and with Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami to contend with.
Shami bowled a wonderful, luckless spell from the Pavilion End and could have brought an early end to Bairstow’s stay on several occasions.
He beat both edges as he extracted lavish seam movement, with Bairstow hanging by his fingertips at times. An animated exchange with Virat Kohli at slip appeared to steel his resolve and he suddenly began to locate the middle of the bat.
With Stokes slightly frenetic at the other end, Bairstow found a groove – leaning hard into a couple of drives before going aerial with two dismissive blows down the ground.
Shami almost got his reward when Stokes stepped down the pitch and skied a fat leading edge to cover. But Shardul Thakur never looked comfortable despite having plenty of time to settle and fumbled, to Stokes’ relief and the crowd’s evident delight.
Bairstow rubbed salt into the seamer’s wounds by slamming the next two balls for four, one flicked over square leg and the next blasted straight and true.
Stokes wanted to join in the assault but was a beat or two behind his partner and got lucky again when he thrashed Thakur straight to Bumrah at mid-off. The India skipper made a hash of it, juggling it in slow motion, but he was about to get the chance to make amends.
Emboldened by his fortune, Stokes went for the same shot again, this time hitting a little harder and a little straighter, but was brilliantly caught by Bumrah diving to his left.
Stokes reacted by throwing his head back and laughing but at 149 for six in reply to 416, England were still in trouble.
Bairstow is making a habit of turning around sticky situations, though, and he continued to make the running with Sam Billings in support.
Mohammed Siraj and Thakur did not have the means to keep him quiet, with Bairstow ruthless off his pads and fearless against anything short.
The boundary count continued to rise as he flicked to square leg, threaded to third man and twice hammered pulls for six.
He was given lbw on on 89, but successfully reviewed due to an inside edge, and was just nine short of his ton when rain brought an early lunch.