As England’s openers walked out to bat at Lord’s on the second afternoon, a ghostly figure took his seat on the balcony to watch them. Half in light, half in shadow, Haseeb Hameed perched in the doorway of the dressing room and patiently waited for a chance that has been almost five years in the making.
Hameed is 24 years old, England’s incumbent No 3 batsman, a player of immense promise and potential, and yet ever since his Test debut in India in late 2016 his career has largely been conceived in terms of loss. In a parallel universe, in the world of romantic imagination, he does not break his thumb and lose his place. He does not return to Lancashire and spend the next two seasons mislaying all concept of his off stump. He does not spoil or ruin or succumb to paralysis and self-doubt. Instead, he nails down one of the toughest jobs in international cricket: opening the batting for England in the post-Alastair Cook era. Of course he errs and struggles, as England err and struggle, but along the way he also repays a little faith. He scores a gutsy, heartwarming century in the 2019 Ashes. He hits an emotional ton at Lord’s against the future world champions. He makes runs on the baked earth of South Africa, the warm soil of the Caribbean, the green pastures of New Zealand. By mid-2021, he’s faced and survived more balls than any opener in the world since his debut.
Instinctively, this feels like a tale of modest triumph. Perhaps it is. Perhaps it isn’t. Either way, it didn’t happen, or at least not to Hameed.
The description you’ve just read is, in fact, the international career of Rory Burns. The 30-year-old Burns is not the shiny new thing any more, and nor is he the winsome comeback kid. Even on his better days, I don’t get the feeling he inspires any great affection amongst English cricket fans. Partly this is because he is associated with so few golden memories: of his eight highest Test scores, two have come in draws and five (!) in defeats.
Partly it’s because he so rarely dominates or takes attacks apart. Partly, you sense, it’s because – unlike Hameed – he looks so skewed and awkward at the crease, like a man being forced to bat in a store cupboard, and so when he gets out on some level you feel like he deserved it. Burns averages just under 33 in Test cricket. Actually, this isn’t bad. It’s slightly higher than the average for all Test openers since his debut. According to the ICC rankings, he is the seventh best opener in the world. He scored 81 two games ago. He scored 132 the game before that.
But this is the England Test team in the time of Covid, where nothing is ever quite fixed or settled or embedded, and so none of that really gets remembered. For all but a handful of his 49 Test innings, Burns has been playing for his survival. Getting to international cricket feels like the pinnacle. In fact, it’s just the start. Once the initial mystique has gone, you’re essentially an open book. By the time a batsman has played 20 Tests – and these days, often much earlier than that – they have already been dissected and anatomised like a laboratory frog. It’s all there: the clips, the pitch maps, the scoring analysis, where you like it, where you don’t. The first time Burns played Australia, he got off the mark with his favourite clip through midwicket. Captains don’t make that mistake any more. Here, the midwicket gap was plugged right from the start.
Nowadays, teams have intricate, bespoke plans for you: probing your weaknesses, or maybe just messing with your head. Here it was two slips, a slightly closer fourth slip and a slightly deeper fifth slip. Later it was with two men out in the deep, in the knowledge that Burns often likes to pull from outside off stump. And unlike in county cricket, the challenge is relentless. When you play Hampshire in May, you know that the reward for seeing off Kyle Abbott and Mohammad Abbas is a bit of Ian Holland medium pace. Here, the reward for seeing off 11 testing overs from Ishant Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah, is 11 more from Mohammeds Shami and Siraj.
Burns hasn’t always thrived in the glare. Like most openers, he’s failed much more than he’s succeeded. But he doesn’t lob the ball straight to midwicket when a trap has been set for that very purpose, as Dom Sibley did in the first over after tea. He can keep out a straight half-volley on middle stump, as Hameed could not. And under the highest pressure, with England more than 300 behind, with the ball hooping around at pace, against a world-class attack and a backdrop of fatalism and dismay, he endured for 136 balls and three precious hours.
And yes, 49 runs is still only 49 runs. But in an England team riven by uncertainty and neglect, where the pool of talented top-order batsmen has dried to a sludge, Burns still feels like part of the solution rather than part of the problem. The clouds had rolled in and the lights were on by the time he finally made his way back to the pavilion, the job frustratingly only half-done. Up on the balcony, now wrapped in a tracksuit, Hameed was still watching.