Surrey 410 for 7 (Burns 174*, Stoneman 57, Sibley 57) trail Hampshire 648 for 7 dec by 238 runs
At Surrey's end-of-season dinner last year, in between reviewing the summer and celebrating all the players they were contributing to various England representative and age-group sides, Alec Stewart singled out a player who, he said, had been unfairly ignored by the England selectors and had the game and temperament to go straight into Test cricket, leapfrogging the England Lions. No one in the room was in any mood to disagree with his assessment of Rory Burns, a one-club man and unobtrusive accumulator of runs.
The trouble is that, while Burns has made gritty runs, fluent runs and consistent runs, he has not quite made enough of them. His problem is not that he fails too often - the fortitude of his defensive technique is such that Burns is seldom dismissed in single figures - but that, when he in and set, he fails to capitalise.
So there were jitters at The Oval as Burns entered the 90s, from which he has twice failed to escape already in 2017. That Fidel Edwards was bowling with vim added to the sense of apprehension. The fraught mood was vindicated: Burns flashed behind on 98, but first slip Sean Ervine could only flail at the ball above his head. Edwards' next delivery offered a little width, and was lashed through backward point for four.
To the appreciative crowd, and Burns himself, the moment might have felt a little overdue. Since the start of 2016 Burns had passed 50 on 15 previous occasions in first-class cricket; just twice - and both against Hampshire last year - had those innings been converted into a century. This summer alone he had scored five 50s in Division One but no centuries.
Yet his personal landmark was insignificant set against the 499 that Surrey needed if they were to avoid the follow-on. Even deep into a marathon day that finished at 6.30pm, Surrey's stand-in captain remained unflappable, his batting in perfect sync: accumulating steadily, maintaining a pace of almost exactly a run every two balls.
Through it all, Burns showcased a rounded and mature game. If his square driving stood out - a point fielder stationed on the boundary is no impediment to Burns finding the boundary with the shot - there was much else to admire. He played spin with unusual assurance for an opening batsmen, committing his feet decisively to every movement and using the sweep dexterously against Mason Crane.
In his tussles with Kyle Abbott and Edwards, Burns displayed his penchant for the hook and, as ever, was ruthless at any delivery drifting onto his pads, of which he received a fair number from Edwards, over-compensating because of Burns' relish for any width outside offside. More than anything, though, this was an innings defined by phlegmatic accumulation which, on a scorching Oval day, was a triumph for Burns' fitness and resolve.
Nor is he done yet: Burns closed the day unbeaten on 174, with designs on his maiden first-class double century. In a sense it is a surprise it has taken so long. Since emerging in 2012, Burns has been among the circuit's most consistent batsmen - he has made two first-class centuries in each previous summer, while averaging between 35.26 and 49.40 every time. He has long since taken on the feel of a senior player at Surrey, as if by osmosis, yet that can conceal that Burns should still be far from halfway into his career: he is still 26, four years younger than his opening partner Mark Stoneman, who is only now seriously entering the England selectors' thoughts.
But that is for another day. As Burns, after calmly defending the final delivery, walked up the stairs to warm applause, Surrey knew that he his mastery had saved them from being in grave peril of sliding to defeat.
Hampshire had been utterly admirable, endlessly creative in pursuit of wickets on a placid pitch. Abbott bowled to Dom Sibley, who made a careful 57, with four catchers from square leg to silly mid-on on the leg side, a sort of Bodyline theory in front of the wicket.
And then there was Fidel Edwards' intoxicating spell with the second new ball. He was liberated to bowl as if runs did not matter in his desperation to overcome the surface. Edwards sprayed the ball wide of the off stump; he sprayed it down the legside. He overstepped, repeatedly. He bowled short. He bowled full. But though it all he remained very fast. The upshot was two wickets - Ben Foakes, hooking to midwicket, and Sam Curran edging behind - and a hint of the match being prized open.
The notion faded as Tom Curran, who Surrey consider a far better batsman than a modest first-class average of under 20 suggests, played astutely with Burns in the final hour. Hampshire will still expect to keep Surrey below the follow-on target yet, even in this age of conventional wisdom being mocked at every turn, eliciting 13 wickets on the final day would amount to a great heist.