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Feature

Rory Burns retakes his guard after tough winter with England

Stewart backs Surrey captain to regain England place after lean run of scores in India

Alan Gardner
Alan Gardner
01-Apr-2021
Rory Burns clips behind square, England v West Indies, 3rd Test, Emirates Old Trafford, 3rd day, July 26, 2020

Rory Burns is looking to put England's winter behind him  •  Getty Images

Most county batsmen know that it's wise not to try and play too many shots in April. Rory Burns, though, seemed to have packed his away before the start of the season, giving a masterclass in defensive technique as he calmly saw off the probing about his winter on Surrey's pre-season media call.
This may be a good thing for England (not to mention Surrey). Having missed the tour of Sri Lanka to attend the birth of his first child, Burns lost his spot midway through the India series - the first time he had been dropped in two-and-a-half years in the Test side - and he could be reliant upon a strong start to the County Championship to reaffirm his status as one of the country's most grittily reliable openers.
Burns' dip in form actually began during the Pakistan series last summer, when he made scores of 4, 10, 0 and 6. But although Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley began and ended England's subcontinental odyssey as the Test opening pair, they struggled along with the majority of the batting line-up in alien conditions, managing three half-centuries between them.
Burns suggested he was not worried about trying to prove his case and that he had "credit in the bank" after a solid run - marked by his phlegmatic character as much as an average of 30.73 after 23 Tests - since becoming the first man to step into the void left by Alastair Cook in 2018. He added that he had spoken to Joe Root, England's Test captain, and the head coach Chris Silverwood after the India tour, and wanted to "drawn a line under it" before the start of the English summer.
"I'm just excited to get back to Surrey, to be honest," he said. "India is a tough place to tour. I had some pretty good news before it, so that's always nice to fall back on, get home and see my daughter and wife. Just excited to get back into training and back with the lads. The way this season's set up, it's all go from the get-go, which is a good thing.
"I had an honest conversation with both of them [Root and Silverwood] and got the feedback in certain areas. But it's just like the end of any tour, you draw a line under it, you evaluate and assess what's gone on and then you come back and you try to prove yourself.
I would be very surprised if Burnsy doesn't score heavily for us in the Championship, and I'd be even more surprised if he's not walking out to bat in the first Test match
Alec Stewart, Surrey's director of cricket
"I don't think outwardly [there is anything to prove]. There's a bit of credit in the bank there in terms of what I've done over a period of time. But quite frankly it's more about what's going on between my ears, how I'm approaching the game, how I'm doing things in terms of leading this Surrey side and where we want to go here. That's my main point of focus now."
It was left to Alec Stewart, Surrey's director of cricket, to lay down a more colourful case in Burns' defence, backing his club captain to hit form quickly in the Championship and reclaim his place for the opening Test of the summer, against New Zealand in June.
"He is a very, very impressive person, a real honest person, a real fighter as well," Stewart said. "He's been that since he was 13. This winter he didn't go to Sri Lanka, then they moved on to India where the pitches were tough and everyone struggled. He got left out - whether that was the right decision or not, you could argue that other people could be left out as well.
"But if you go to that back-end of last summer, we were talking that going to Australia and the Ashes [in 2021-22], a lot of you may have been saying the top six is already sorted - in that there's Burns, Sibley, Crawley, who'd just got 260-odd, then Root, [Ben] Stokes and [Ollie] Pope at six and [Jos] Buttler seven. So it's almost all sorted, then you have a unique tour, a big series against India on surfaces where they struggled as well. Virat Kohli, one of the best players in the world, what did he average, 27 or something? So it was tough, but I think you have to put that in perspective and not forget all the good that England did against West Indies and Pakistan, and in Sri Lanka as well.
"We were all pretty happy with that group of players and now, because of a unique series against India, it's all of a sudden, 'should he be slung out, should he be slung out?' I would be very surprised if Burnsy doesn't score heavily for us in these first seven Championship games. And I'd be even more surprised if he's not walking out to bat alongside Sibley in the first Test match."
Next to his dismissal attempting a reverse-sweep on the first morning of the series in Chennai, the episode involving Burns on tour that attracted most attention was a Twitter imbroglio with England Women spinner Alex Hartley. But on this, Burns was doubly determined not to be enticed into having a nibble.
"It's all been dealt with by the ECB and sewn up," he said. "Not something I want to be drawn on. I think everyone knows the pros and cons of social media and I don't want to elaborate any further on my personal views."
It wouldn't be fair to paint a picture of Burns as assuming a crabbily defensive posture to all enquiries - he joked about the possibility, or otherwise, of giving up his England contract to go and play in the IPL, and spoke warmly about the responsibilities of fatherhood.
Besides, ignoring the talk in preference to working on his game will likely be a better strategy for club and country. Burns' technique, which comes with a fair amount of idiosyncratic whirring and clicking, should benefit from a solid two months of first-class cricket, and drowning out the noise through weight of runs would be the best way to groove his return to the Test side.
"It's exciting that we've got this block of games, the way the season's set up it really allows sides to approach County Championship cricket in the way you want to approach it," he said. "Seven back-to-back games, it'll be difficult because you're on the treadmill from the get-go but it's an exciting opportunity.
"From my perspective, the way those Tests [in India] were going, I think you could have left out any of the batters at various points. The way they were set up they were loaded in India's favour, which is their prerogative, but it wasn't conducive to opening the batting in terms of how we see it in this country. I've got a few things I want to work on personally in my training, but it's a great opportunity to go out and score some runs for Surrey. I love doing that, I love captaining this group of blokes, so that's basically how I'm approaching the season."

Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick