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Alex Lees: From emerging from the abyss to the brink of England recognition

alex lees
Yas Rana by Yas Rana
@Yas_Wisden 4 minute read

Alex Lees is reportedly in line for a maiden England Test call-up for their upcoming tour of the Caribbean Займ онлайн на карту срочно. . He speaks to Yas Rana about his career so far, his move from Yorkshire to Durham and what life is like as an opener in the county game.

Of the 14 top six England batters to debut for England in the last six years, Rory Burns is the only one to average more than 30 in Test cricket. Seven of the 14 were 24 or younger at the time of their Test debut. Between them, those seven have produced six hundreds from a combined 102 Tests. During the hardest era of Test batting since the 1950s, England have really given youth a chance.

That might change after arguably the most calamitous Ashes tour of the lot. Not unlike the England football team veering from one type of manager to their antithesis – from Eriksson to McClaren, from McClaren to Capello, from Capello to Hodgson – England may seek to drift away from their recent faith in young players to learn on the job. Especially at the top of the order, where the mean batting average among openers this decade is the lowest since the 1900s, two decades before Bradman’s debut.

In that context and with the benefit of hindsight, fielding two young openers with first-class averages marginally above 30 and expecting them to thrive Down Under was always  optimistic. It has since been reported that should England turn to a more experienced head up top, the man they are likely to opt for is Durham’s Alex Lees.

It’s easy to forget that Lees – who captained the England Lions on their recent tour of Australia – is still only 28. By the age of 21, he was a County Championship winner, England Lions tourist, was averaging 42.75 in first-class cricket and counted Geoffrey Boycott as one of his most vocal admirers. At that stage, it looked as though he would soon follow the Yorkshire-to-England path trodden by his county contemporaries Jonny Bairstow, Joe Root, Gary Ballance and Adam Lyth.

Not long later he suffered a marginal drop-off in form before his returns fell off a cliff entirely, so much so that he left his boyhood club. In 2018, Lees endured a torrid season averaging a mere 16.10 in first-class cricket with England talk seemingly a world away. He describes his Lions recall as a return “from the abyss”.

But even after the two toughest years of his career, Lees’ England ambitions were an important component of his decision to move north to Durham. “There were a few factors that sent me this way,” Lees tells Wisden.com. “At the time I was due to get married that winter so one of the things was that my family and friends are all West and North Yorkshire based. I wanted my wife and myself to have access to our friends and family.

“Secondly, there’d been some top order players who’d recently played for England: [Keaton] Jennings and [Mark] Stoneman, who had done really well at Durham and got runs. Personally, I’d got runs playing for Yorkshire at Durham.

“The other thing is that they produce England players. Even though I’d played really poorly for 18 months, that was always my ambition. I would have been 25, 26 at the time. If I could get back to somewhere near [to his best] or better, that was still on my radar.”

His numbers have been good at Durham without being spectacular; across the last three summers he averages 39.68. He hasn’t quite replicated his early career highs, but in relation to his competitors for an opening berth his record stands up pretty well.

Lees’ return to form does beg the question as to what happened in those last two years at Yorkshire. How did someone who has earned England Lions call-ups in two distinct phases of his career go through such a prolonged lean spell?

“There was a change in management at Yorkshire at the time,” Lees explains. “I’d obviously flourished under Jason Gillespie. Unfortunately sometimes in any sort of industry you can not quite get on with people or have challenging circumstances around that. That underlying area was ultimately one of the biggest reasons why I probably didn’t play as well as I did in the previous five years.

“The details are probably not that appropriate but it was a really challenging time for me. If you look at it now, I think if Dizzy [Gillespie] had stayed I could have played 20 or 30 Tests. Or I might not have, I might also have been poor but on reflection I think what I’ve done well since is that I’ve used that challenging period and I’ve learnt from that hard time and in the last three years I’ve been as consistent as I’ve ever been. I just want to use that bad experience I had there for that 18-20 month period and use it to improve.”

Consistency is the buzzword for Lees and when he talks through the particulars of his game, you get a sense as to why accumulated experience is perhaps more beneficial to opening than any other role in the game.

“For bowlers bowling around the wicket to me – not to everyone – I’ve batted a foot outside off stump and a foot outside my crease to get outside the line of off stump. Or if it’s a pretty good wicket and all they’re trying to do is get you out lbw, I’ll move to middle or leg stump. That’s the sort of batsmanship or fluidity that I have that’s changed a little bit. Just having the fluidity in your game and being brave enough to do it.”

Towards the backend of the recently concluded Ashes, Zak Crawley – five years Lees’ junior and potentially his opening partner in the Caribbean – claimed that 34 or 35 is a “very good average for an opener these days” in county cricket, that “pitches have been very favourable to bowlers” and that he’s felt that “like it’s been very hard to open the batting” his whole career.

Lees’ attitude is more positive than Crawley’s but admits that life as an opener is probably tougher than it was at the start of his career. “You take those two years out where I was really poor…back end of 2016 I still averaged over 40,” he explains. “If you take those two years where I played really poorly out, I think I probably still averaged over 40. It’s not impossible. I do think that it is challenging. I think really good seamers are almost guaranteed to get their rewards now. When I started, there was more swing bowling and more planned bowling. So you might have a batter where you bowl away-swingers and then run one back in. Now I think that the majority of bowlers plan to present the seam, top of off and hopefully they’ll get wickets. Unfortunately it is what it is. I’m trying to negate that and get my runs, it’s not necessarily going to change immediately so I almost prefer not to waste my energy on that.”

It would be naïve to assume that, if selected, Lees will instantly replicate his county numbers in the Test game. Based on the last few years there probably needs to be a recalibration of what a decent record for an opener is in Test cricket, not dissimilar to Crawley’s assessment of opening in the county game. But should Lees receive that first England Test call-up it would round off an impressive return to the upper echelons of the English game after two forgettable summers in his mid-20s. At 28, he’s as primed as he’s ever been for that call should it come.

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