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Sri Lanka v England

Dan Lawrence takes his chance, Jonny Bairstow grasses his

Dan Lawrence Takes His Chance, Jonny Bairstow Grasses His
Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner
@Ben_Wisden 4 minute read

Even if Dan Lawrence could hardly have asked for a gentler introduction to the Test arena, he could also barely have looked more unfazed.

The held pose and nod after smashing his first Test six were as good as the shot itself; being able to appreciate the good that you do is an underrated quality. We’ve heard all about the wrists, and they showed they could do far more than just manipulate the ball into gaps on the leg-side; there was one cover drive that evoked Virat Kohli, played with an almost horizontal bat low to the ground as those joints wrapped the bat round. It’s a method of dealing with full balls that makes sense on slow turning pitches, much more likely to defeat a batsman horizontally than vertically, and the exciting thing about Lawrence is how naturally it all comes.

Even when he quite literally lost control, dropping his bat trying to regain his ground after a wild charge down the ground, there was reason to smile, with a shrug and a grin showing he wasn’t taking it too strongly. Dilruwan Perera eventually got one to kick and take a glove, denying Lawrence a fairytale debut ton, but this was an impressive start nonetheless.

There are caveats, of course. The man who got him out looked nothing like the bowler who led the wicket charts when these sides met in 2018, and much more like a player with nine wickets at 98 since then. Wanindu Hasaranga might well be “among the 10 most valuable players in the world” one day, as Sri Lanka coach Mickey Arthur has touted, but he’s a long way from that status at the moment. Dasun Shanaka bowls at the kind of pace Lawrence will be very familiar with from his days on the circuit. He faced just seven balls from Asitha Fernando, the lone specialist seamer. Lasith Embuldeniya impressed, but without support he could do little to hold back the tide.

Lawrence also had the pleasure of a match situation virtually without pressure. The second ball he faced, a full toss outside off stump, was clubbed for four to take England into the lead after Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow had done the bulk of the work erasing Sri Lanka’s miniscule first-innings total, and there would be plenty more freebies to follow early on.

Oddly, given his innings laid the platform for Lawrence’s excellence, it’s Bairstow who might have the most reason to rue it. It might seem harsh to call this a wasted opportunity for the fiery Yorkshireman, who batted very creditably in his first Test knock in over a year, but it’s exactly what it is.

Having eased to 47 by stumps on day one after England had lost two early wickets, he would have had his sights set on another hundred to make people say things like “redemption” and “answered his critics” and “don’t write Jonny off”. Instead, he nicked his second ball to second slip and that was that. Given the players absent for this series it was a significant chance missed. With England’s position in this game strong and Sri Lanka’s resistance so far feeble, he will only get at most two more knocks to stake his claim for India. Even then, with high-quality quick bowling nowhere to be seen, there’s maybe not much a Bairstow score of substance could tell us that we don’t already know about him.

Lawrence should now be ahead of him in the pecking order if he wasn’t already, but where exactly he sits is murky. England’s is not exactly the traditional problem of plenty – there’s no comparison to the Australia side of the 2000s, who could pick from any of a dozen batsmen and be confident they would average mid-to-high 40s. Rather, they have a selection of players roughly equal when promise and performance are taken into account, even if none are yet bankers to churn out runs consistently. Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley’s dismissals were worrying from technical and temperamental perspectives respectively, the former defending with a familiarly angled bat, and the latter only needing to be tied down for 25 balls before playing an impetuous stroke. Both remain unknown quantities playing against spin in conditions which suit it.

Rory Burns might seem the most in danger, the oldest of those uncertain of their places – Bairstow apart – and perhaps the one with the lowest ceiling. But he’s also the most experienced, and an average of 26 in his debut series in Sri Lanka hides the important contribution he made to the series sealing win, scoring more than 100 runs across both innings at Pallekele. Ollie Pope might well be the most talented of the lot, but he also averaged just 27 in the English summer. If another statement knock makes Lawrence undroppable, Pope can have few complaints if it’s he who misses out.

But perhaps what this debate most demonstrates is how it’s not really a debate of any real import at all. The idea of a first-choice top six or seven is an increasingly abstract one, changing by conditions and often unachievable as the increasing volume of high-intensity cricket played takes a toll on physical or mental health. With a greater importance rightly placed on player wellbeing and personal commitments, having all your options available all the way through a long way Test series might well be a thing of the past.

Lawrence looks the part as a Test cricketer. For now, that’s enough. No matter where that leaves him in England’s order of preference, more chances will surely come before long.

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