The opening act: Rory Burns is off, way off

The England opener has made important runs, but in between, he's looked bereft

Jarrod Kimber
Jarrod Kimber
Rory Burns is in agony. Nothing much has happened, Steven Smith has just pushed a ball from Stuart Broad into the covers, and Burns has run around and had a shy at the non-striker's end. He misses the stumps, and it wouldn't have been out even if he hit. But the throw isn't a little wide, it's out by at least a metre.
Burns saw the shot, moved quickly, picked up the ball well, and released it efficiently. But he slung the ball a bit, rather than a proper throw, and sprayed it wide enough off the stumps so that Chris Woakes, backing up, can't stop it either, and Smith gets five. Broad questions Burns, who is too angry to provide a friendly response.
In this series so far, Burns has 17 runs from three innings, and here he'd just given four back off a non-run out chance. It is not the only time he's been wrong by about a metre.
So far this series Rory Burns is off, way off.
Among opening batters, Burns has the 17th most runs of any English player. Ahead of him are five players who have been knighted. Then there are Graham Gooch, Michael Vaughan, Herbert Sutcliffe, Marcus Trescothick, and Mike Atherton. People who open the batting for England this much often become legends. And England has had probably the most incredible openers the game has seen. Alastair Cook's runs, Jack Hobbs' hundreds; it's an exceptional list.
And Burns sticks out. He's currently averaging 30.87, around half of Sutcliffe's magical mark. The next lowest average of English openers with at least 1500 runs is Peter Richardson's 37.47. Right now, England would trade in three of their back-up keepers for just one batter who could hit that mark.
The joke I go with is that England have now used every male aged 20-35 in the job, and it still hasn't worked. Since Andrew Strauss retired, England have used 21 openers in less than ten years. One of them is Cook, who played 78 Tests.
Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler have pinch-hit there, Jack Leach has done it as a nightwatchman, but that still leaves Cook and 17 dudes. If you can remember them all, you need to get out more. A couple, such as Ben Duckett and Moeen Ali, were Asia specialists. In Jason Roy and Alex Hales, they used two white-ball specialists. Adam Lyth, Sam Robson, and Michael Carberry didn't get enough time. And of that list (excluding Cook), only Joe Root averages over 32. They've also used Joe Denly and Jonathan Trott as openers.
It was all made worse by Cook retiring in 2018. At that point, his batting still would have been better than any replacement. But just as he left the game, the global average of seam bowlers dropped sharply. So, it got harder to bat at the top of the order at the exact time that England lost not only the one opener they relied on in the preceding six years, but one of their greatest ever.
The left-handed opener is being set up for a caught behind. The bowler is taking the ball away outside off stump and has just beaten him the ball prior. This one is slightly fuller, searching for that edge, the batter's feet go nowhere, and it's an outside edge that floats to second slip. But it's dropped.
The batter is David Warner; the fielder is Burns. This was at the Gabba. Considering Warner nearly doubled his score from there, it was quite the miss and guaranteed that England would be in deficit. In Adelaide, a very similar thing happened. Mitchell Starc set up Burns around off stump, his feet went nowhere, the ball took the edge, except Steve Smith completed the catch comfortably.
Burns and Warner are no comparison in this series, of course. Even before that drop, Warner had scored more runs than Burns has in the Ashes so far. When Warner was bowled by Stokes on day two at the Gabba, off a no-ball, he was already on 17. That is Burns' tally after three knocks.
It's been dark for Burns, so you would forgive him for thinking as he walked off in the first innings in Adelaide that if only, he had been at slip when the ball had taken his edge, he might still be out there.
Zak Crawley was 21 years old when he made his debut for England. He was averaging 31.27 at the time in first-class cricket and had three professional hundreds. He was fast-tracked because he looks so good.
It's not just how he looks. Crawley went to Tonbridge school, which produced the Cowdrey family and Ed Smith. His father, who works in finance, is known as 'Terry the Till' and was once on the Sunday Times' rich list. Terry sent Zak around the world to turn him into a more well-rounded player. Terry is also well known to many former players - especially those now in the media - who he takes out for dinner and drink. This was even before Crawley was an international player.
But Burns also went to nice schools. In his first, he counted Andrew Garfield as a fellow student. Then he moved to Whitgift, which is basically a Surrey academy at this point. While Burns may not come from quite the same background of privilege as Crawley, he was still at a school renowned for producing cricketers and his father is a very respected coach around Surrey.
But Burns is ugly when he bats. He looks funny like he has a permanent neck injury which means that even when he is talking to you, he's looking in another direction. The path his bat takes coming down is seemingly controlled by a noob gamer. And his feet, well, the less said the better.
None of that matters if you make runs though, and unlike Crawley, Burns made a lot of runs. But he never got any hype or age-group selections. Surrey kept recruiting other openers, most notably Mark Stoneman, and also favoured Dom Sibley. Few at Surrey picked Burns to be their star opener, let alone an England player. But he just kept making runs.
He averaged 49 his first full season and had 11 hundreds after six complete years with Surrey. He had to make four hundreds in 2018 (and wait for Cook to retire) before he finally got into the England side. That is more hundreds that season than Crawley had in his career when he was chosen. Burns is not here by accident. He got here because he was one of the best batters in county cricket year after year. He scored his way in.
Burns also wasn't a white-ball darling, or a Lions player - he played his first game just months before his Test debut. He was a long way down England's depth chart. A lot of players had failed to give him that chance. So, Burns went to a school known for producing cricketers, had a father who was a well-respected coach, and played for the one county you want to play for to get an England call-up.
But his batting was so ugly, that he had to outperform almost everyone else to get a job. The idiosyncratic nervous-energy-twisted-sister technique that makes him look like he's in constant fear of a raptor attack from the side put people off. In terms of runs, though, it worked. So, well that England did pick him.
And that is when it stopped working.
In the second innings of the Gabba, Burns received a ball that bounced a lot more than expected. As the catch was taken the commentators screamed about "an outstanding delivery". It was certainly something. Pat Cummins bowled a good length outside off, and the ball hit an invisible trampoline. It ended up taking a bit of glove on the way through to the keeper.
When you watch it back though, other things are clear. Burns is in a terrible position to play this delivery no matter how it bounced. It was a wobble-seam ball angled across him, but it went straight. Burns was across the crease - you can see his leg stump again - his front foot was planted outside off, but not forward; he was stuck on the crease. If this ball continued to go straight and didn't bounce weird, he was still in a poor position, neither back nor forward.
And then there was his bat. It didn't matter in the end, as the ball hit his glove, but his bat was angled and hanging out to dry. It looked like he'd be a big chance for an edge even if the ball did nothing other than angle across him. Had it kept slightly low it was also perfect for him to drag on.
The actual dismissal looks more dramatic because of the bounce and Burns' reaction, as he limbos under the ball. But Burns wasn't in the right place to play this delivery, and when it did anything unusual, he was gone.
You might think it is unfair to point to his flaws to a ball that many players would have struggled with. But if you're repeatedly in the wrong spot with your feet, and your bat is angled, then chances are you're not going to last long.
It's not that Burns has never made runs. His last hundred was earlier this year, against the world Test champion attack of New Zealand. He has two hundreds against them. And his other hundred was a gutsy one at Edgbaston in the last Ashes. Burns has made important runs, but in between, he's looked bereft.
Burns averages 25 against offspin. He's fallen to offspin 13 times. R Ashwin has him three times, but he's probably the greatest bowler we've ever seen to left-handers. Roston Chase has dismissed Burns five times. He's more of a part-timer, or at the least, a batting allrounder. He takes two wickets a Test and has a bowling average above 40. Being dismissed this many times by Chase shows how deep Burns' problem is.
There is also a run out on his record that can be traced back to an offspinner. When Burns was desperate to get off the strike off Dilruwan Perera in his first Test at Galle, he repeatedly flicked the ball to Rangana Herath at mid-on to steal a single. Then Sri Lanka made a fielding change, chose a more agile fielder and either Burns didn't notice, or wasn't put off, but he took on the mid-on again and was run out. The one top quality offspinner he has a good record against is Nathan Lyon. Sadly, for Burns, he's not had the chance to face him so far this series.
There aren't that many good offspinners around, but 48% of Test deliveries are from right-arm seam bowlers. And from that, there is one line and length Burns has been good against full deliveries outside off. Essentially, throw-down balls. His only other good zones are when the ball is overpitched on the stumps or back of a length at the body. In every other zone, he has a weakness. By length alone, he basically pings half volleys around, struggles when the ball is on a length, is slightly better when it is back of a length and is terrible when it is short. That gives the bowlers a lot of leeway.
He's only faced four left-arm pacers, but it's quite a list: Neil Wagner, Trent Boult, Shaheen Shah Afridi and Starc. He's actually done okay against the Kiwi southpaws, but Starc and Afridi have dismissed him five times in 95 balls. If you think he is struggling against Starc, you should have seen him against the Pakistani version. The one thing Burns has done well so far in his career is face left-arm orthodox spin. He averages over 50 against them but the problem is he's only faced 250 balls of it because so often he's out to everything else.
It is also worth noting that Burns has walked into an incredibly hard period of batting - especially if you are left-handed or face a lot of pace. In the five years before his first Test, openers averaged 36.4. That has dropped to 32.2 in Burns' era. It means that while far from ideal, Burns' 30.87 is not that much worse than average.
But England's batting is failing at incredible rates. Their top order is in constant rotation, only Root averages over 40, and the middle is currently misfiring. Burns is bad, in a poor line-up and being that he has faced 32 deliveries this series, it's kind of hard to ignore.
England has been in agony so far these Ashes, Burns is just the face of it.
If you freeze the first ball of this Ashes, Burns is set up to play a wide ball into the covers. That's not where Starc delivered it though.
Most people have moved on from that moment. It will become part of England's modern Ashes lore, with Steve Harmison's first-ball wide and Nasser Hussain's decision at the toss. But England fans have been moving from crisis to crisis ever since that opening calamity. Burns has not moved on.
He has now opened the batting 265 times at first-class level. On 260 of the first 263 times, he faced the first ball of the innings. Since that Starc ball, he's opted to not face the opening delivery for the fourth and fifth times in his career. The social media buzz of that first ball is finished, but it is still viral in Burns' mind. England - or Burns himself - has decided that he can no longer be trusted to take that first ball after a decade of taking it religiously.
This was a freak ball. Even with Burns' obvious mistake, this would usually have gone harmlessly down the leg, and the commentators would have called it a loosener. Had the ball not swung, it would most probably have missed leg stump by 35 centimetres. The stumps themselves are almost 23 cm across. And if you look where his foot lands, he's at least 30 centimetres outside off. So, Burns was maybe just shy of a metre from where that ball was originally heading.
Rory Burns was off, way off.

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber