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Rory Burns’ Reverse Sweep

Ben Jones looks at the unusual dismissal of England’s opening batsman.

Nothing endears a player to fans quite like the obvious presence of struggle. If you battle through the tough times, visibly not at your best, then even mediocre returns can bring plaudits. Get the absolute most out of the situation with which you’re presented, squeeze every inch out of your talent, and you are onto a good thing. The flipside to all that love and positivity, is that nothing winds fans up quite like a batsman Giving It Away.

Across his career, Rory Burns has generally seen a fair chunk of love from fans, for the reasons outlined. His unorthodox technique give a sense a man trying to solve a problem, in real time, every innings he plays. Everything is deliberate, everything is earned. And yet today Burns got an unwelcome taste of what can happen when everything looks a bit too easy.

At the time that Burns was dismissed in Chennai, everything seemed rosy. The new ball had been seen off, the spinners were on, and while in Asia that is no indication of the threat lessening, it remains a marker, something to tick off. Jasprit Bumrah and Ishant Sharma are both top class Test bowlers, and they had left no scars on England’s openers. 

Particularly, Burns was looking slick. He was scoring briskly at just under 3.5rpo and was doing so without risk, only 6% of his shots bringing a miss or an edge – the average for all Test cricket is 15%, let alone the new ball period. Against the spinners he had looked to be assertive, Burns had conventionally swept a very straight ball from Ashwin right off his stumps, down to fine leg for four. He had danced down the wicket and driven through midwicket with a straight bat, also for four, getting right to the pitch of the ball. They were clinical, well executed shots which spoke of a man with a gameplan, and a sense of how he was going to score his runs.

And then, having moved to 33, Burns gloved a ball from Ravichandran Ashwin to the close fielders, when attempting to reverse-sweep.

Yes, you did hear that right – a reverse-sweep, in the first session of the Test match. If it sounds unusual, that’s because it is. No batsman has ever reverse-swept R Ashwin in the first session of a Test match. The only other England opener to do so to any bowler since 2006) was Keaton Jennings, a man in a deep and committed relationship with sweeps of all kinds.

In general, sweeping Ashwin is not easy – very few players do it well. The overall average for batsmen sweeping or reverse-sweeping Ashwin in Tests is 28, which drops to 23 in India. Part of that is because Ashwin varies his pace so well. The wicket ball was the slowest Ashwin bowled to Burns, the extra flight making the cross-batted stroke much harder to time. 

However, Burns sweeps conventionally very nicely. He averages 93 with the stroke (against spin) in Test cricket, and 54 in the larger sample size of First-Class cricket. Similarly, Burns has come down the track 42 times in Test cricket, scoring 34 runs and never being dismissed. It is also an attacking method he executes well, as he had already shown against Ashwin in the moments previous.

What he does not do, is reverse-sweep. Burns has only played the shot 20 times in FC cricket, scoring 30 runs and being dismissed just one – the dismissal we saw today. That’s a solid record when he has played it, but he has done so alarmingly infrequently. For Burns to bring it out at such an early stage of a Test – of a Test series – and against a bowler of Ashwin’s quality, is a surprise.

Across the board, the reverse-sweep gets a raw deal. In Tests, when top order batsmen play it, the average is 45; the conventional sweep is only slightly higher at 47. The fact it is so unorthodox does make it more noticeable, and it’s failures more obvious. No pundit ever went broke blaming unnecessary aggression in a Test match, and few shots are as conspicuously attacking as the reverse. But rather than asking “should you play a reverse in the first session of a Test”, the real question should be: can you play it? It should be subjected to the same criteria as hooking, cover driving, and every other stroke in the game because, for the batsmen who can play it, that’s all it is. Just another shot. 

That’s the tough balance you are trying to strike, as a batsmen touring in unfamiliar conditions. You know you need to adapt, because the challenge you’re faced with is new; but you don’t want to change too much, because new techniques inevitably come with risk. But for Burns in particular to flourish, you sense that his best option is not to expand his repertoire, but to refine it. The conventional sweep, and coming down the track, are good options for him, and represent enough proactivity to disrupt the spinners’ length. You don’t need every shot in the book. For Burns to get back to his best in Test cricket, he needs to get back to the ethic, of pragmatism and self denial, that got him to this level in the first place.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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