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Dan Lawrence will pick Alastair Cook's brain in bid to become 'relentless' Test run-scorer

England newbie says blaming white-ball focus is a "cop-out" as he targets prolonged run in side

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Dan Lawrence impressed with his selfless batting in the Caribbean, but wants to build longer innings  •  Getty Images

Dan Lawrence impressed with his selfless batting in the Caribbean, but wants to build longer innings  •  Getty Images

After a winter spent at close quarters with a modern England great in Joe Root, Dan Lawrence says he'll be mining into the methods of another of his illustrious team-mates at Essex, Alastair Cook, as he returns to Chelmsford determined to build on the marginal gains of a "frustrating" first full year in Test cricket.
Amid the doom and gloom of England's slump to the bottom of the World Test Championship standings, and with a solitary victory in 17 attempts since February 2021, the insistence from within the England camp that there are "positives" to take from last month's 1-0 loss in the Caribbean has come in for heavy criticism - not least from Cook himself, who has denounced the rhetoric as "deluded".
And yet, Lawrence's sparky displays - at least in the first two Tests in Antigua and Barbados - were as uplifting as anything that England have produced all winter. Twice in as many games, his selfless second-innings batting took the attack to West Indies to set up a pair of final-day declarations, and though he admits he's still "kicking himself" for the manner in which he gave away a maiden Test hundred at Bridgetown, the initial signs are promising as he seeks to make Root's former No. 4 berth his own.
"I'm happy [to have got my opportunity]," Lawrence said during Essex's pre-season media day at Chelmsford. "It's been quite a long winter. Obviously I didn't play in Australia which was disappointing so it was then nice to get few games in the Caribbean. I felt like it went alright. I'm a bit disappointed about the last game, but that's life. I feel like we're improving a lot as an England team and I'm just excited to get going with the Essex boys now."
After 11 stop-start appearances since January last year, Lawrence's record epitomises the erratic current state of England's Test cricket. Four excellent and contrasting half-centuries - including a match-winning effort on debut in Sri Lanka and 96 defiant runs on a spinning deck in Ahmedabad - have been countered by five ducks in 21 innings, including a fateful leave-alone to his final ball of the winter in Grenada.
But the potential is undeniable, and Lawrence's annoyance at his failure to fully cement his credentials cannot distract from the sense that he's emerged from the Caribbean with a clearer understanding of the player he needs to be within this rebuilding team.
"It's been frustrating, to be honest," Lawrence said. "Of the scores where I got in, I would love to have gone a little bit bigger, because all the best players do that. You're always going to get low scores in international cricket. It's bloody tough out there, there's some serious bowlers out there.
"It's about trying to work out how to survive those early bits, which I've got to improve on. And then, when I get in, really go big. I've got to keep it literally as simple as that, and just keep enjoying it. It's obviously a massive honour and privilege to play for England. So it's something I desperately want to continue doing."
Lawrence perhaps will not get a better learning experience, however, than the circumstances of his 91 in Bridgetown. On a blameless first-day pitch, and with his captain Root at the other end in a hefty third-wicket stand, he had the match situation, and the wise counsel alongside him, to truly make his start count. But then, in the closing moments of the day, he allowed his blood to pump too freely as he lashed a catch to cover moments after back-to-back boundaries, and instead it would be Root and the next man in, Ben Stokes, who would cash in with three figures.
"It's massively gutting," Lawrence said. "I would have taken 91 at the start of the day but it's a funny game - no matter how well you do, you always walk away a bit disappointed with batting. If I had that moment again, obviously I'd do things differently, but there's always stuff to learn from it and if I get that chance again, then hopefully I can rein myself in a little bit more.
"That's how I generally play my cricket anyway - to try and get the game moving and try and put the opposition on the back foot as much as possible," he added. "Then it's just about having the ability to go through the gears and go back down a couple of times. And my reflection from that is I wish I'd slowed down a little bit and then got a really big hundred. That's what all the best players do - when they get a chance to go big, they go really big. And that's my main reflection from the tour."
Few players in English history have gone much bigger than Root and Cook - with five double-centuries each, only Wally Hammond (7) has reached 200 more times. And having seen at close quarters how "relentless" Root can be when he gets his chance, Lawrence says he'll be looking for tips from Cook about mastering the mindset of red-ball batting.
"He's someone I'm going to use quite a lot at the start of the year," Lawrence said. "Not necessarily from a technical point of view, but trying to pick his brain with mentally how he went about it. Because it's tough work, Test cricket. It's obviously brilliant and great fun, but it is a massive step up, and mentally it can be quite tough. So I'm going to try and use him as much as I possibly can, pick his brains, and take whatever I can from the best players."
Part of that mental prep involves shutting out external factors - of which there are plenty swirling around at present, as English cricket grapples with an extended run of defeats that hasn't been countenanced since the tough days of the 1990s. Already, however, Lawrence seems to be learning to filter out the noise and just focus on the job at hand.
"I don't try and listen to too much of what people say off the pitch," he said. "I think people do generally enjoy being a bit more negative about the England side than may be needed.
"But I think for us now, it's completely irrelevant what's happened in the last 12 months. It's obviously not been an ideal 12 months for us as an England side. That's quite obvious to anyone. But we've got a real opportunity now to really make the most of our home conditions and try and get some good series wins under our belt.
"And I really think that the way the team's going, if we do keep going like this and we all keep improving as players, I really think we'll start getting some wins on the board and when everyone's around and when we've got our perfect England XI out, I think we're going to be very hard to beat."
Much of the blame for the Test team's recent woes has been laid on the ECB's explicitly white-ball focus of recent seasons - first with their run-in to the 2019 World Cup, and more recently with the establishment of the Hundred, and the absence of Championship cricket in last year's prime summer months.
Lawrence, however, isn't having any of it. "I think that's a big cop-out that a lot of journalists use," he said. "They blame white-ball cricket for the failings of red-ball cricket, but India have got an amazing white-ball team and their Test-match team is still incredible.
"There's a lot of people there who are desperate to do well in red-ball cricket, and we play as much as we can, and we do as much as we can, to try and do well, and it's something that, I'm sure with the quality around, that it will turn. It will turn for us. I think the whole white-ball thing is a bit of a cop-out."
On the impact of the pandemic, however, Lawrence is rather more equivocal. His county coach, Anthony McGrath, believes that the lack of youth-team fixtures in recent seasons has stunted the development of Essex's rising crop of players, and while the opportunities for the new faces in England's set-up haven't been quite so limited, Lawrence admits that his first experience of an Ashes tour - ordinarily a career highlight for any player - was "not great".
"We were allowed out for dinner and stuff but we could only sit outside, and it just wasn't as good as an Australia trip away can be," he said. "The training was very limited. At the practice game [in Queensland], it rained the whole time as well. It was one of those where I just think it wasn't quite meant to be. And Australia are obviously a very, very good side as well. And they're hard to beat even if you have the best prep in the world."
It was doubly frustrating for Lawrence given that, in the spring of 2020, he had returned from Australia as the stand-out performer on that year's Lions tour, and in ordinary circumstances, would surely have warranted an opportunity to prove himself again in those conditions - especially once the series had been lost with two Tests to come.
"I was disappointed, yes," he said. "I mean, I can't do anything about it - when you don't get picked, you don't get picked. And that's fine. It was just a bit of a driving thing for me to try and do well whenever I did get a chance. And thankfully I did get my chance in the West Indies.
"It can get a bit tedious after a little while, especially when you feel like you haven't got a big chance of playing. But it's just about trying to keep on top of everything - do what you can and try and stay as fit as possible and hit a lot of balls and hopefully when you do get a chance try and take it."
"It's not been ideal but still, when you go and play for the country, it's just as special even if it is a Covid game. The Caribbean was the first real taste of a little bit of freedom for a lot of us. The rules weren't quite as strict. We could go out for dinner, we could go and meet friends and stuff as long as it was in a controlled environment. It was a good tour and felt like the first sort of tour normality for a while."
Next stop then, for Lawrence, a probable green seamer against Kent at Chelmsford, and an encounter with a man whose name has cropped up with increasing frequency throughout the winter - including in last month's third-Test collapse in Grenada, where Kyle Mayers wobbled the ball on a good length to claim seven match-wrecking wickets, and showcased precisely the probing attributes that the evergreen Darren Stevens has made his trademark.
"It will probably be quite similar," Lawrence admitted. "We'll just see what happens when we get out there on Thursday. I'm sure on the seventh of April, with loads of rain around, it will do a little bit but I'm just going to play it by ear and see how it goes, and take each day as it comes. To start off this season, I've just got Essex on my mind."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket