Burns hangs around and finds solution to curse of the opener
Adaptability is the key to batsman’s game as he works out way to fend off barrage of short balls
Sam Robson scored a Test century once. It was a fine one, too: 127 on a tough wicket at Headingley in his second Test match in 2014. But Robson reached 50 only once in his next eight Test innings, and was swiftly dropped.
Adam Lyth scored a Test century once, too. Like Robson, he did it at Headingley in his second Test, defying the swing of Trent Boult and Tim Southee to hit an aggressive 107. But Lyth did not pass 40 in another 10 innings, exposed by the brutality of an Ashes series, and has never played again.
Keaton Jennings scored two Test centuries. One came in each of his two stints in Test cricket – from 2016-17, and then 2017-18. The trouble is what happened after those Test hundreds: just one score above 50 in his last 28 Test innings.
And so when Rory Burns began the series with 133 at Edgbaston, England’s enthusiasm was tempered. He had displayed great fortitude and skill on Ashes debut, even if that century had benefited from an unusual amount of luck: Burns played 23 per cent of false shots, in the top 10 for any century made in Test cricket since 2006.
Yet the real reason why England were still a little cautious to anoint Burns as one answer to their opening conundrums was bitter experience. Most of the 15 Test openers (excluding nightwatchman) since Andrew Strauss retired in 2012 have given the selectors some early reason to be hopeful. It is what has come next – the difficult second album – that has been the problem. This has been the curse of the England opener.
In the second innings at Edgbaston, Burns was dismissed
fending off a short delivery. When the pitches quickened up in the next two Tests, three of Burns’s four dismissals were to short balls. Although Burns still contributed 53 and 29 at Lord’s, two single figures scores at Headingley created just a little fear that Burns would suffer a similar fate to Robson, Lyth and Jennings twice.
At Old Trafford, Burns displayed the indispensable quality for a Test opener, especially in such a brutal era for batting: adaptability. Ever since that dismissal in the second innings at Edgbaston, Australia have ratcheted up their proportion of short balls to Burns. In this innings, Burns received 76 short balls, the most he has ever faced in a Test innings; 58 per cent of balls from pace bowlers were short.
While the pitch was slower than in the previous two Tests, the assurance with which Burns played these short balls – defending or evading the ball with confidence, and even hooking a couple of fours – suggested that he had embraced the endless challenge for Test batsmen, of weaknesses being exposed and attacked and then responding. It appeared as if his hands were a little lower, helping him to duck under the ball when necessary. For all bar the very elite, such subtle refinements are the lifeblood of Test batsmanship. Burns has embraced as much, while remaining true to the quirks of the individualistic method that has got him this far.
“I found a way to get through today and that’s probably the method of my batting – try and find a way to get through and develop stuff on the quiet,” Burns said. “Pat Cummins is a fine bowler. He came in and made something happen. It was good to be up against it and nice to have that scrap and tussle with him.”
While Burns did not match the volume of runs of Edgbaston, this innings had a more assured feel. After coming through an onerous start to the third day, Burns looked more in control than at Edgbaston. The middle of the bat was found more frequently; plays and misses were scarcer. Burns played only 19 per cent of false shots, compared with 23 per cent at Edgbaston.
The way Burns played Nathan Lyon – starting the evening session by lashing a cut through the covers, and sweeping dextrously – showcased the best of his method in Sri Lanka. His courage against the short ball and driving – a back-foot punch against Mitchell Starc particularly oozed class – showcased the best of his batting against pace in the West Indies.
The real mark of Burns’s work this series, though, is not so much in the runs he has scored as how he has fared against the competition. The other five batsmen to open this Ashes – Marcus Harris, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft for Australia; Jason Roy and Joe Denly for England – average just 12 between them, with only one score of 20 or more in 21 innings between them. In this company, Burns has 323 runs at 46 apiece. He has been undemonstrative but outstanding. Only Steve Smith and Ben Stokes have scored more runs this Ashes summer.
It has been six years since an English opener not called Alastair Cook made centuries in the same calendar year. If that run remains unbroken, the resolve that Burns has displayed over the cauldron of an Ashes campaign gives reason to think that that second hundred will not be long in the offing.