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Rory Burns needs to define England’s Test summer

Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner
@Ben_Wisden 4 minute read

Can Rory Burns become England’s main man, asks Ben Gardner.

At the end of 2019, Rory Burns’ stock could barely have been higher. He had made his maiden Test hundred in the first Test of the Ashes, and showed his durability throughout the drawn series, facing more balls than Alastair Cook ever did in a home series.

He added another century against New Zealand before nearly crossing three figures again against South Africa, briefly giving an illness-ridden England hopes of an unlikely pursuit in the Boxing Day Test. Defeat left Joe Root clinging onto the captaincy, and, having impressed as Surrey’s captain in county cricket, leading them to the County Championship title in the season preceding his maiden call-up, Burns emerged as a candidate to succeed him.

Since then, almost everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. There was a freak injury playing football which ruled him out for the rest of England’s winter, and while he succeeded at first on return against West Indies, he was subsequently Shaheened, averaging just five against Pakistan with all but one of his dimissals coming against the precocious left-armer. In the subcontinent his struggles persisted, with two starts bookending two ducks, and his place lost as Jonny Bairstow returned. His off-field image then took damage as he became involved in a Twitter row which saw him reprimanded by the England team.

How he was rebounded since demonstrates his cussedness and fortitude. He has eight scores above fifty in the County Championship this season, more than any other player, with a century and a score of 81 against New Zealand, the No.1 ranked Test side in the world, confirming he was back to his best. But his return to form should also come as no surprise. The pressure on him was intense on the eve of that Ashes series, and he blocked out the noise to forge the finest innings of his tenure to date in the fire. And really, he has spent his whole career defying easy criticisms and off-hand observations. You don’t thrive with a technique as unique as Burns’ without taking a certain perverse pleasure in proving people wrong. The ability to understand why his method works for him and the self-belief to stick with it despite the cries of ‘Bat normally’ from elsewhere are the skills that have made him the best of the post-Strauss openers.

Now though, England need more, and despite Burns having re-established himself at the top of the order, he stands at a crossroads of sorts. He has always been a player to make consistent contributions, rather than dominate games, as his record for Surrey shows. He has 51 fifties and just 18 hundreds for the Three Feathers, a conversion rate comparable to the notably century-shy Michael Atherton in Test cricket.

His record for England is similarly weighted, with five scores between 81 and 90, and just three hundreds. This season for Surrey, seven of those eight scores above 50 have ended before reaching three figures.

Such consistency can be underrated due to cricket’s obsession with milestones, and England have been sorely lacking regular platforms laid by their top order. There’s an argument to be made that the player who scores 50 every innings is more valuable than the player who makes
100 every two.

Now, however, England could really do with Burns performing both roles: laying the platforms and then capitalising on them. England’s top six, depleted by Ben Stokes’ absence, looks brittle in the extreme. Even the senior players can hardly be counted on, with Joe Root’s poor home form continuing in 2021, and Jos Buttler, who looked like he had cracked Test cricket when making a daddy hundred against Pakistan, having played only three games in whites since.

It’s important for Burns’ own career too. The next six months could see him take any number of diverging paths, and without sufficient credit built up, another run of poor form could prove fatal for his ambitions. Five-Test series have a habit of ending careers, and England have two of them coming up. Burns, who will turn 31 during the India series, can ill afford to allow his pattern of fluctuating fortunes before summoning a resurgence when he most needs it. Instead, if he blocks out the noise and churns out the runs, he has the chance to build something substantial.

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