It wasn’t exactly the day for focusing on the positives, but as England’s batting crumbled for the second innings in succession, there was one lone pillar of resistance whose performance pointed, ever so politely, to a better future.
The composure Rory Burns demonstrated for the majority of his second innings in Barbados suggested England may, at last, have filled one of their opening positions. And it offered just a hint of consolation after the sort of drubbing that revived memories of tours here from 40 years ago.
Despite coming to the crease after many hours in the field and despite facing an almost impossible task, Burns looked as calm and proficient as anyone to have opened the batting for England for some time. Well, anyone who doesn’t have the surname Cook, anyway.
Unlike Cook, however, this was an innings in the mood of the current team. Taking advantage of the aggressive fields, Burns made 60 of his runs from boundaries, reacting to the demands of the situation with admirable positivity.
Early in his innings Burns received a brute of a ball, one that reared past his nose from Shannon Gabriel. Many batsmen would have been reluctant to come forward as a result but Burns was in a perfect position, just two balls later, to cream one off the front foot through mid-off for four.
If the drives and clips were the highlight – he really is good against anything overpitched – he also had the presence of mind, the craftsmanship, really, to drop and run, to turn the ball into the gaps and to keep the scoreboard moving. He left well, too, and generally showed he had the patience to withstand the inevitable fallow periods in producing an innings that would have pleased any Test opener.
“Rory’s innings was what it’s all about,” said England’s captain, Joe Root. “He showed he’s a Test player, and to do that under pressure, and against a side desperate to win and coming at you as hard as they were, shows the quality that he has.”
Several other opening candidates – Nick Compton, Sam Robson and Adam Lyth among them – have enjoyed promising days in the role. But Robson and Compton both had the propensity to become bogged down and therefore allow pressure to build, while Lyth could look a little loose outside off stump. Burns looks tighter than Lyth and has more release options than Robson or Compton.
This innings followed his 59 from 66 balls in Pallekele – a terrific innings full of skill against the spinning ball – to suggest he has the rounded game to fulfil this role in most conditions. The Ashes will offer a different – and significant – challenge, but he really might be the best option England have right now.
Burns made 60 of his runs from boundaries, reacting to the demands of the situation with admirable positivity
This wasn’t perfect, though. Several times he attempted cuts – even late cuts – which seemed an oddly low percentage stroke with a line of slips waiting for the edge. He was fortunate to either miss the ball or see it fly in the gap between the slips and gully, but it was never a shot he played with any degree of assurance. He looked far better when he played straight.
His dismissal was disappointing, too. Concentration disturbed, perhaps, by the prospect of lunch or a maiden Test century, Burns started to look loose from the time he reached the mid-60s and eventually left a gap so large between bat and pad, you could have reverse parked a caravan in it.
Or maybe he was simply wearied. For his was an important innings for him and one that would have sapped at his mental and physical resources. He would have known it was an excellent opportunity to cement his place for the Ashes and record his first Test ton and he may be frustrated he wasn’t quite able to do either. It was a significant step in the right direction, though, and there’s no reason why there should not be more to come.
His opening partner, Keaton Jennings, was much less impressive. Perhaps frustrated by his lack of progress – his 14 runs occupied 84 deliveries and did not contain a boundary – he was drawn into a loose, footless drive – truly, the statue of Sir Garfield Sobers which stands outside this ground has been known to move its feet more – at a ball well outside off stump which sent an edge to second slip. It was just about as poor a dismissal as you could see from a Test opener.
He will probably keep his place for the Antigua Test, though. It’s not so long since he made a century in Galle at the start of the Sri Lanka tour, and his excellence at short-leg has been a real asset. But it is hard to be hugely optimistic about his suitability to cope with the Australia pace attack in the Ashes and England are running out of opportunities to make a change. Joe Denly may win a chance before this tour is over.
The value of Burns’ innings was also illustrated by the struggle of the batsmen who followed. Where Burns seemed to have time to deal with the pace of Gabriel, Root and Bairstow were both hurried by him. It seemed, for a while, as if the pitch had suddenly come to life: in reality, it was simply that Burns had, for a while, made batting appear more straightforward.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo
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