Ben Jones analyses an innings of curiously good fortune, and remarkable character.
Rory Burns’ first Test century was impressive in all the ways we assumed it would be. Gritty. Resolute. Obstructive. It was everything he’s been in the last five years for Surrey, churning out runs at The Oval first as civilian then as skipper. He showed mental strength from the moment he walked out in Birmingham to the moment he walked back, unbeaten, at half past six this evening.
And yet, it would be disingenuous to suggest this innings was flawless. It would, in many ways, be disingenuous to suggest this innings was good.
It’s a blunt measurement in some ways, false shot percentage. There are all sorts of reasons why you might edge or miss the ball. A livelier than anticipated pitch, perhaps. An instruction from the dressing room to up the rate. Simply, a good delivery. However, over time it tends to give an accurate reflection of how a batsman is playing, how confidently they are going about their business, and today that number did not reflect as well on Burns as the red ink in the scorebook.
24% of his shots today were edges or misses. That is staggeringly high. It is almost twice as much as the average for Test cricket, sustained over an entire day’s play, without being dismissed. Of all the Test centuries made since 2006, only eight have seen a higher false shot percentage.
He edged the ball 16 times off the seamers today, and every time it seemed to go wide of the widest slip, regardless of how many men Tim Paine stacked in the cordon. Time and time again the ball flew down to third man, just out of reach of the Australian slippers. Burns edged the ball more often than he took singles against the seamers.
When you consider that he could have been out LBW to Nathan Lyon if Australia had been alert to the opportunity to review, the picture worsens. It’s been a Test where umpiring errors have come almost as frequently as wickets, and Australia chose the wrong moment to place their faith in the on-field decision. Television played the ‘review’ through as it would have gone – three reds.
This isn’t an intentionally harsh assessment. People might criticise it for not getting at what made this innings special, and they would be right. A false shot percentage of 24% shows nothing, other the fact that Burns was not in control. It doesn’t consider his mindset, the mental strengths he was showing. But it’s not trying to.
The thing is, you can quantify those attributes, in other ways. Ticker, character, guts – they may not be measurable precisely, empirically, but you can find evidence to show that they’re there.
Back in November, when Burns made his first Test half-century in Pallekele, he played 16 sweeps shots. On a slow low turner against Akila Dananjaya and Dilruwan Perera, Burns read the situation and felt it was his best option. None of Akila’s deliveries were above 88kph, and only 9% of Dilruwan’s were, so the risk of being beaten by pace was minimal, so his sweep approach was sound. Today at Birmingham, he changed that approach. Nathan Lyon was bowling much quicker than the Sri Lankans were, with 57% of his deliveries above that 88kph mark. In response, Burns adapted his technique and played only one sweep, and that was deep into the evening session. He showed the sort of game awareness that will stand him in good stead.
What’s more, he showed character on that long march through the nineties as well. Burns faced 10 balls on 9; only two English batsmen since 1999 have faced more balls on 99 in an innings, those two being Marcus Trescothick v Pakistan in 2001 (19 balls), and Alastair Cook v West Indies in 2009 (11 balls). To sit there and soak up the waves of noise pouring down from the Birmingham stands, to ride the adrenaline he’d have been soaked in, is a challenge that plenty would have failed. But Burns found a way, as he seems to do.
Indeed, as he has done for years. Because Burns has played the sort of innings that this emphatically was not, plenty of times. In 2017, he made 219 (423) against Hampshire that was almost chanceless, a false shot percentage of just 11% testament to a technique that can, at it’s best, remove all but the most unavoidable risks. Just because most of us weren’t watching doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
What’s more, on that list of false-shottiest centuries, Burns is hardly in bad company. Almost all the men ahead of him are brilliant players, some of them legends of the game, and some of those innings are iconic. McCullum’s departing century; Misbah’s fastest ton. Even the best have days when the nicks go over the keeper, when the luck goes their way.
The reason we applaud the sort of landmark that Burns reached today is not because they are, inherently, worth celebrating. Sometimes they are. Generally though, we applaud them because we recognise everything that led up to them. We recognise that in almost every case, the player stood in the middle has made sacrifice upon sacrifice to be there, to have the opportunity to take advantage of whatever good fortune comes their way. As a Test match opening batsman, you can get from 0-100 by being lucky; but being lucky isn’t enough to see you become a Test match opener.
Fundamentally, what we’re circling around here, is that really – who cares? There have been 834 players to appear in an Ashes Test match, and Rory Burns now has more Ashes tons than 635 of them. He has more Ashes centuries in England than Alastair Cook, than Alec Stewart, than Michael Atherton. In the coming weeks, if Burns struggles again, perhaps we’ll look back on today and admit that the signs were there; perhaps, if he blossoms, we’ll laugh about how his first ton was far from his finest. Yet for today, in this particular moment of his own cricketing history, it doesn’t matter how Rory Burns got there. It only matters that he did.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.