Rory Burns grinds once more as selection-grabbing innings eludes him
England opener still sweating on place as tough conditions hinder progress
Surrey 191 for 4 Burns 55) vs Somerset
On the sort of surface which might convince an opening batsman - or a spinner - they should give it all up and become a plumber, Rory Burns made his fifth half-century in seven innings and fourth in succession. Nobody in the land has reached 50 more often this season. But these are uncertain times for Burns. He lost his England place in India and is far from certain to win it back in the New Zealand series. With Zak Crawley and Dom Sibley seemingly assured of their places in the top three, Burns' involvement may depend on where England decide to play James Bracey, who they appear to see as a utility player capable of fulfilling a role in the top and middle-order. In that light, Dan Lawrence's eye-catching century for Essex might not be great news for Burns. But, at his best, Burns' batting has a phlegmatic quality that rises above such concerns. His maiden Test century, made against Australia in Birmingham, was in many ways a masterclass of mental strength overcoming every challenge. He was dropped often and beaten frequently but not for a moment did he lose his composure.
It was similar here. With damp conditions denying any chance of play before 2pm on the second day, this pitch had been under cover for a long time before Somerset's bowlers took first use of it. Inevitably, the ball nipped around and edges were beaten.
But apart from one occasion, when Burns followed one he could have left, he refused to be drawn into pushing at the ball and was able to put any play-and-miss behind him. Eventually, as the ball softened and the bowlers tired, more poor balls were his reward. He failed to fully capitalise on his start but in terms of the basics of opening the batting, he looked in fine order.
He would have been relieved to hear that Somerset had rested Craig Overton. Overton bowled 40 overs in the second innings of Somerset's win over Hampshire last week and has already clocked over 200 this season already; heaven knows he has earned his break. But, with three five-wicket hauls in his last three Championship matches, his absence leaves quite a hole in this attack. Jason Kerr, the Somerset head coach, later confirmed the decision had been taken in collaboration with the England management. If Overton does win an England chance in the coming weeks, Somerset want him in the best possible shape to seize it. Perhaps more of a surprise was the absence of Jack Leach. He, too, was rested, though having bowled only 129.5 overs this season, this was more with a view to the challenges ahead; Leach has spent a long time in bubbles and there is more of the same to come. Perhaps the lush green surface persuaded Somerset that he would be surplus to requirements anyway. There wasn't an over of spin in the day.
Somerset were also without Steve Davies, who was absent to undergo a minor medical procedure. That left Tom Banton as designated keeper for the first time in first-class cricket.
As it was, having beaten the bat regularly but without fortune in the first hour, Somerset's control slipped. Burns, having weathered the storm, was able to accumulate neatly off his legs and drove a couple sweetly through the off-side when the bowlers over-pitched. Kerr later conceded that he found the performance "a bit frustrating".
"We haven't quite capitalised on a surface which had been under cover for two days," he said. "We didn't ask the batsmen questions often enough."
Indeed, Somerset might consider themselves a bit fortunate with a couple of the wickets. Hashim Amla, who was starting to look ominously sound, pulled a long-hop to the long-leg fence - it provided Lewis Gregory with his 300th first-class wicket - and, after a couple of typically elegant cover drives, Ollie Pope top-edged an attempted pull shot from a ball that was too full for the stroke.
Burns was, perhaps, a little unlucky. In attempting to defend a good-length delivery, he saw the ball bounce off the face of the bat and roll back onto the stumps. His consistency is impressive, certainly, but he will know that it is centuries, not half-centuries, that force selectors to take notice.
"In those conditions, we have a decent score," Surrey head coach, Vikram Solanki, said. "We needed a bit of luck early on, with playing and missing, but that is always going to be the case on that sort of pitch. I thought both Rory Burns and Mark Stoneman played well to overcome the new ball."
With the forecast grim, there is every chance that none of this will count for much. But if progress in the weeks ahead is decided by a point here or there, perhaps Somerset will reflect on this match and rue a squandered bowling point which they probably should have been able to claim.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo