To many, the decision to cast Alex Lees aside and keep faith with Zak Crawley for the tour of Pakistan was a surprise.
The opening pair had very similar 2022 summers, though Lees shaded it on every metric: runs, average, half-centuries and double-figure scores. Except, ultimately, on talent ceiling. The three wise men of England's set-up - Rob Key, Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes - had long spoken of Crawley's incredible potential, and when he finished the English season with 69 not out at the Kia Oval to sign off the Test summer with a series-clinching victory over South Africa, picking between the two became easier.
Crawley went on to score a century in Rawalpindi, his first innings of a Pakistan tour that would eventually reap 235 runs for some much-needed currency going into 2023. Lees, meanwhile, was at home with his wife and two children, gearing up for a Christmas of family, reflection and decluttering.
"I'm sure I wasn't amazing to be around for a couple of weeks," Lees says, recalling his mood at certain times over November and December. "But those things [family] always ground you and give you a good perspective on life. And what can you do?"
By his own admission, his axing was greeted with dismay. "I think it's human nature. If anybody has some news they're not particularly happy with, if you're in sport or life, there's a natural distaste in your mouth." But it was no bolt from the blue.
"I wasn't a dead cert to go to Pakistan. I'm not naive with that. My runs probably didn't reflect some of the impact I did have in some games. Some of the run-chases, in particular.
"It wasn't like it was definitely not on my radar that it wasn't a possibility. They had given us some encouraging support throughout the summer. But unfortunately, it's part of sport. There are always going to be tough decisions because, for somebody, it's not great news."
There had bee an inkling of bad news on the horizon when Lees failed to make it onto the central contracts list. Confirmation of his axing came via a call from Key, director of men's cricket, and McCullum. Amid the commiserations was a clear message: to spend the time away refreshing and then developing his game in line with how the Test team is progressing. To be punchier, domineering and self-assured. Something which he has already begun working on with Durham, and will hope to expand upon for England Lions in Sri Lanka over the next month.
"For me, I've just got to keep staying in my lane and keep trying to develop as a player. And hopefully, if I can go back and put some good performances in…" Lees pauses, before doing some internal mathematics. "It might not necessarily be this year but over the next couple of years while I'm still young enough, hopefully I can be afforded another opportunity at some point."
There are a couple of things that stick out here. Firstly that Lees recognises the man who has replaced him, Ben Duckett, will be backed for a long period of time. Not just due to an impressive return to Test cricket this winter but because loyalty is a key tenet under Stokes. Any return for Lees will take time, in part because his replacement will be afforded the same luxury of consistency as he was.
The second, more important, part might be "staying in my lane". There is a degree of misapprehension surrounding The Word According To Baz and Ben: that they are asking players to have a bat on the wild side. While the shift has been towards being more assertive in the middle, the onus is on the player to find *their* best way of doing that.
Looking back on the summer of 2022, there were moments Lees successfully accessed this side of himself. Specifically, the fourth-innings chases against New Zealand at Trent Bridge and India at Edgbaston. Scores of 44 and 56 set the tone for successful pursuits of 299 and 378, respectively. Both knocks earned praise from the skipper, coach and those who went on to take the glory of seeing England home for building the foundations for those successes.
It was a contrast to the first three of Lees' 10 Test caps in the Caribbean. As England transitioned from Chris Silverwood's tenure after the 4-0 Ashes loss, the unknown of the summer meant a holding pattern in March. Stasis followed, along with a 1-0 series defeat to West Indies. Lees struck just 126 runs across six innings, at a sedate strike rate of 27.39. It was a period, he explains, in which he was simply trying to fit in.
"I don't see myself as a limited player," he says, reflecting on the early knocks. "I think it was obviously a conscious decision: you're just trying to buy into whatever the team's philosophy is. When I made my debut in the West Indies we'd come off the back of a regime where there was a big importance on first-innings runs no matter how slow or how long it takes to get them. So I think I was just trying to play in line with what the team ethos was at the time of each tour.
"But it's not that I'm a one-set style of player. I was literally just trying to bring the captain and coach's vision through action."
As such, despite the struggles of the summer, Lees did not feel he was trying to do anything alien to him. If anything, the 29-year old was recalling an approach utilised throughout his earlier years at Yorkshire, when he enjoyed success against both the red and white ball with a game that suited both. The kind that earned him the nickname "Haydos" from then-Yorkshire coach Jason Gillespie, after Australian left-hander Matthew Hayden, who was an early inspiration for Lees as a fellow southpaw. The change since has been as much about age as a shift in conditions and surfaces within county cricket.
"I think in respect to the style of play it's probably something I hadn't played for a little bit of a while," he says, "just due to the wickets not being that great in county cricket the previous few years. So it's not something I'd been accustomed to in the immediate near past.
"But I think the start of my career I felt very comfortable and I probably played in that manner, particularly when I started playing at Yorkshire because the wickets had a bit more pace and carry in them than what they had in the last few years. So I think referring back, naturally, I didn't feel too bad. I just had to tap into a different part of my career and I felt fine with that."
The factor that will help any future case Lees puts forward for adding to his Test caps is the degree to which he bought into the project. Team-mates regarded him as an engaging presence in the dressing-room, sociable even during stressful periods and unwilling to take a backward step. The best example of that last aspect came in the one-off Test with India when he was more than willing to bite back at Virat Kohli when the pair were verbally jousting on their way off the field at tea on day four. At stumps that day, he played down the incident as a big of fun: "He's obviously a very competitive person, and I'm quite headstrong also. That's what my wife says." Nevertheless, standing up to such a decorated opponent went some way to showing Lees was committed to the cause and developing a sense of belonging.
Naturally, that makes his current situation a little tougher to bear. At the same time, he is fixated on returning as a more accomplished player. Following a return to training with Durham at the end of 2022, he moves forward into the Lions' two "Tests" against Sri Lanka A knowing exactly what he needs to do, and how he needs to do it.
"I think I enjoyed being in that environment, especially in the summer playing in a successful side," he says. "It was brilliant. I think my reflections on playing those games, I sort of played pretty competently but just lacked that big score which is obviously the difference. As a top-order batter, you're averaging mid-twenties to mid-forties for the summer which, in essence, is what your Test summer is built around.
"My biggest reflection is disappointing, having got myself in good positions throughout the summer and I just didn't capitalise on it. I'd love to experience that environment again and I think if I do, my biggest learning from this summer is that I need to make big hundreds.
"That's the difference between the average summer I had and an exceptional summer and being left out. I'm fully focused on getting back in."