5th June 2021, England find themselves under immense strife, having lost four front-line batters for just 29 runs on Day 4. The Three Lions, who had begun the session comfortably placed at 111/2 were suddenly fretting over avoiding the follow-on, which at 140/6, was still 39 runs away.
Despite the hara-kiri at the other end, though, Rory Burns stood his ground, soaked in all the pressure and persisted in his Zen avatar – traits that have long been associated with the lad from Surrey.
Unfortunately, though, on many previous occasions, those characteristics haven’t translated into tangible performances, meaning that he, at the start of 2021, even lost his place in the England Test set-up.
On Saturday, however, nothing of that particular sort materialized, with Rory Burns reminding the world that his style of batting, which has been termed archaic (at times) and even been perceived as devilishly complicated, might still have a place in England’s scheme of things.
Thus, when Burns was dismissed for 132, having grafted England to a position of relative safety, there was a hush across the sparsely populated Lord’s Cricket Ground. That he perished, while attempting a waft outside off stump was quite ironic, to put it plainly.
Prior to it, the left-handed batter was simply sensational as he dug deep into his resilient reserves and kept New Zealand at bay. Not only did he accumulate 132 runs, he also tired out the Black Caps’ bowling attack, with Burns spending 477 minutes and consuming 297 deliveries.
Importantly, the knock, which consisted of 16 boundaries and a solitary six (incidentally his only maximum in Test cricket), came at a time when England were longing for one of their flair players to stand up. Or, in blunter terms, anxiously hoping that one of Burns’ more flamboyant England counterparts would rip the game open.
Yet, when Dan Lawrence, James Bracey and Ollie Pope perished, courtesy a combination of loose stroke-play, excellent bowling and a slight technical deficiency, England needed stoutness – an attribute Burns amply provided.
While Burns’ essay, which effectively ended New Zealand’s hopes of scripting a victory, would go down in England’s Test folklore, simply for the application displayed, the knock magnifies in significance when looking at the backdrop under which it was played. Lest anyone forgets, Burns, despite his stellar run in the current County Championship season, was still playing for his spot in the England side.
Throughout his innings, the left-handed batter was cautious outside his off stump. In fact, he rarely played at deliveries in the channel and was content to leave anything that wasn’t in line with the stumps. Though those led to some close calls, he largely seemed unflustered.
To place things into further context, only one of his 17 boundaries came down the ground or in the area that is often referred to as the “V” between mid-on and mid-off. That too was only when Neil Wagner’s slower yorker went awry and ended up as a juicy full toss outside off stump.
Apart from the above, Burns almost always forced the New Zealand bowlers to bowl within the stumps. Unsurprisingly, he feasted on those deliveries, with the flick being his most productive stroke during his 132-run marathon. That it came, while those around him departed attempting extravagant shots, only highlights the temperament showcased by England’s opener
The most poignant aspect of his knock against New Zealand though, was that he delivered when the chips were down, both for him and England.
Rory Burns was dropped by England against India in February
For the uninitiated, Burns was dropped during the tour to India – something that seemed a knee-jerk reaction. Before the omission, Burns had rarely had his spot under the scanner, with the likes of Dan Lawrence, Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley being consigned to that fate instead.
Hence, even for a batter like Burns, who has plundered tons of runs in the domestic circuit, the sojourn to reclaim his place at the top of the order was a venture into the unknown.
To that end, England might be gleaming that Burns, like he has almost always done in the County circuit, found a way to cast everything aside and lay the foundation for England’s batting unit in a Test against a strong Kiwi side.
More tellingly, the knock, which would certainly fill Burns and England with confidence, was something both parties required. For Burns, it provides further evidence that he can be a stoic presence at the top of the order. England, on the other hand, have long viewed the batter as their first-choice opener.
Thus, the performance against the Black Caps was arguably what Burns and England needed, especially as they prepare for a five-Test series against India. And, of course, the Ashes later in the year.
Having said that though, there are still a few flaws Burns might want to iron out before facing Australia and India.
Against the latter, the left-handed batter’s technique against spin was woefully exposed in February 2021. While there might not be as much turn in the United Kingdom, Burns certainly highlighted that tendency with his twitchiness against Mitchell Santner.
Additionally, Burns still looks a touch uncomfortable against the short delivery – something that led to him being struck on the helmet twice – once each by Kyle Jamieson and Tim Southee. And, with neither really being a tearaway quick, it is an area that Burns might have to work on.
In fact, these weaknesses came to the fore against New Zealand at Lord’s too. When Burns was in the 70s and 80s, he saw BJ Watling miss a stumping, while getting pinged on the helmet twice.
The bouncers also muddled his footwork and led to him prodding at a relatively wide delivery outside off stump. Thankfully for him, Tim Southee couldn’t snaffle up the chance in the slip cordon.
Furthermore, when the England batter’s batting isn’t in sync, he can look pretty vulnerable, owing to the sheer number of moving parts even before the bowler has delivered.
At Burns’ best, it sets him up to keep leaving balls outside off stump and disdainfully dispatch deliveries aimed at his pads. At his worst though, he can fall over, poke at balls outside off stump, drive without adequate foot movement and of course, get into awkward tangles against bouncers.
Thus, there is no denying that there are plenty of shortcomings in Burns’ batting style at present. However, the batter comes across as someone who marvels in his weakness rather than goading about it.
Maybe that explains why the left-hander, despite seeming fiendishly complicated, still manages to deal in the currency that matters most in Test cricket – runs.
So far, England have only been privy to fleeting glimpses, meaning that Burns only boasts a middling average in Test cricket. Yet, there were enough signs to suggest that he might just have turned a new leaf post his century against New Zealand.
Previously, almost all of his substantial knocks came when the match situation had him and England pinned to the wall. This time though, he had the broader perspective to address. And, to England’s delight, he came through unscathed.
Could it then be a career-defining knock for Burns? Well, you might not want to bet against it!