Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo
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Essex 162 for 3 (Lawrence 74*) vs Middlesex
It took until around 4.45pm on the opening day of the 2023 County Championship at Lord's to see it.
All the talk leading into the start of the summer was of influence from above. Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes want you to blow the roof off - what say you, county men? Your country needs you (well, not all of you) - do your bit by taking the silencer off and entertaining. After all, it's your only way in.
Yet, even with intermittent rain interrupting play on the first day of Middlesex's return to Division One since 2017, and Essex's plans to reassert their first-class dominance, there was nothing to suggest the message had been heeded. The game moved at a familiar pace, humming familiar tunes. Until midway through the 53rd over when Toby Roland-Jones delivered a regulation top-of-off-stump ball and Dan Lawrence advanced and created room to inside-out check-drive it over extra cover for the first six of the match.
It's easy to get over-excited at the beginning of a new season, but there's every chance those committed enough to stick through the earlier showers have already witnessed the shot of the season. Essex had been put in under overcast skies, and, having lost Alastair Cook and Nick Browne in consecutive deliveries with just 48 on the board, Lawrence and his captain Tom Westley were primarily focussed on weathering storms. But this was no evidence of a broader sea-change, even if it was immediately followed by another charge and pummel over wide mid-off for four. This was simply Lawrence being his own man, doing things his own way for his own team.
A first half-century of the season had come up in 113 deliveries and you wonder how quickly he might have chased three figures if the looming threat of an early close of play did not ask for watchfulness. The 25-year-old rests on 74, Essex already a handy 162 for three against a Middlesex attack looking understandably ring-rusty.
No batter straddles the conundrum of positivity preached and the responsibility required to bat for your team in nibbly conditions quite like Lawrence. Few carry such natural audacity and ability while being a vital cog in an established red-ball side. Long before the national team urged the county game to sup their Kool-Aid, Lawrence has been managing the friction of personal expression and professional duty.
Being on the periphery of the Test squad gives Lawrence more reason than most to over-indulge. That he kept himself in check to compile a handy 121-run stand for the third wicket before Westley skewed a drive off Roland-Jones to backward point, speaks of a refrain that remains valuable.
Lawrence has not yet earned a cap under Stokes and McCullum, his closest involvement coming as an unused squad member on February's tour of New Zealand. The barrier to adding to his 11 Tests has been space rather than doubts from selectors. The rise of Harry Brook and the expected return of Jonny Bairstow means Lawrence is likely to adopt a similar position on the outside looking in this summer, barring misfortune for the others.
By all accounts, he is their type of player. A couple of weeks into the New Zealand tour, Stuart Broad noted this England environment "suits" Lawrence as "an attacking player who plays incredible shots and likes to take the game forward". Of those trying to break into the team, he has the least to prove.
"Dan's naturally attacking," Essex head coach Anthony McGrath reiterated. "He's a top batsman and if he fancies it, he'll take it on. I don't think he'll stop playing like that, wherever the game is going."
Lawrence does have the Middlesex slip cordon to thank for allowing him a shot at first-class hundred No.13. Prior to Westley's dismissal and after Browne's misjudged attempt at a backfoot punch, Lawrence had his own miscalculation outside off stump when on 32. But Sam Robson's dive to his left from second slip in front of Stephen Eskinazi's to his right from first meant the edge found by Tim Murtagh came to nothing.
The wisdom of Murtagh was carried in his reaction: rueful, knowing Lawrence and Essex aren't the types to ignore gifts. Officially into his 24th season, his standing as Middlesex's bowling coach gives him more understanding as to why his attack could not create further opportunities.
A wet pre-season meant the four seamers were tuning up on the job at the start. Roland-Jones gradually found the right line to Essex's left-handed openers but did snare Cook with one down the leg side. Browne's brisk start - at one point 20 off 18 with four fours - was primarily down to being allowed to cut early on before the necessary recalibrations.
Easter Friday will bring with it a greater crowd and better weather, and in turn, a good deal more eyes for Lawrence to entertain. Whatever the messages from above, it is in Middlesex's best interests to stop him.
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