Freddie Wilde analyses Rory Burns’ problems outside off stump.
One of the most important attributes of a Test batsman, and particularly a Test opening batsman, is knowing where their off stump is. By this we mean the batsman has an awareness of what he can leave alone – safe in the knowledge that it won’t challenge his stumps, what he needs to defend – knowing that if he doesn’t he risks being bowled, and what he can attack – understanding which balls can be taken for runs.
The channel is such a good place to bowl precisely because it challenges the batsman’s confidence about where their off stump is. Do they defend balls in the channel because they are honing in on their stumps? Leave because they might miss them? Or attack because they are wide of the stumps? Striking this balance is essential to good batsmanship.
Worryingly for England this is a skill that their current opener Rory Burns appears to be struggling with. So far across Burns’ short Test career he has shown a clear weakness against balls that are passing the stumps in the 50cm channel outside off stump. Against these deliveries Burns has been dismissed five times at an average of just 8.00 runs per dismissal. He appears far more comfortable when bowlers stray straighter – averaging 53.00 against balls that would hit his stumps, or when they go wider – he has not yet been dismissed by these deliveries.
Struggling against balls in the channel is not unfamiliar – it is called the corridor of uncertainty for a reason. However, Burns’ problems are severe by the standards of other left-handed openers, who average 30.25 against balls in the channel since the start of 2015, while Burns is way down at just 8.00 runs per dismissal.
Closer analysis of Burns’ shot-types against balls in the channel show that his problems in this region appear to be rooted in his intent.
Analysing Burns’ shot-type choices against balls in the channel outside off stump shows how he adopts a markedly different approach to playing these deliveries than other left-handers. Although he leaves almost exactly the same proportion of these deliveries as other batsmen he chooses to defend significantly more.
This data suggests that Burns is being indecisive outside his off stump. Rather than attacking when given width or leaving when he is sure he can – instead he is pushing at balls – which in this area, and particularly when the ball is moving laterally through the air or off the pitch, is lined with risk.
This risk was clearly illustrated in his dismissal on day two at Lord’s when he defended a ball that was 46cm outside off stump – wide enough for him to attack if he wished or leave if he felt it wasn’t going to challenge his stumps. Instead Burns pushed at the ball which found his edge and was caught in the slips. In the first innings he fell in a similar manner – once again defending when he didn’t need to.
Burns’ issues appear to be technical as well. On commentary Michael Holding noted how Burns often defends with an angled bat – hitting towards cover point, rather than straighter towards mid off. This angled bat makes him more susceptible to edging the ball.
A series of familiar dismissals should not invalidate years of run-scoring at county level. Burns forced his way into this England team with consistent returns over a number of years – scoring 1,000 Championship runs in every season since 2015.
However, batting in Test cricket is a different challenge altogether and that challenge is particularly acute right now. Batting averages at the highest level have not been as low as they were in 2018 since 1967. We are in a golden era for bowling and pitches have not provided bowlers with as much assistance for years. All these challenges are compounded for openers who have to bat when the bowlers and the ball are at their freshest.
While Burns might have got away with being a touch indecisive at county level, it is more difficult to do so at Test level where the bowlers are more accurate, the ball moves more and the margin for error is smaller.
Burns’ method helped him get this far and while he should not abandon the approach that has helped him reach the highest level of the game he may need to acknowledge that some adaptation might be necessary if he is to survive here.