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Feature

Dan Lawrence shaping up as the homespun hero of Root's new England

Young batter's non-conformist approach offers glimpse of radical future for Test side

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
22-Mar-2022
Dan Lawrence made a lively 41 for England  •  Getty Images

Dan Lawrence made a lively 41 for England  •  Getty Images

"Mystery spinner, mystery spinner… my kingdom for a mystery spinner!"
The storied reign of Nasser Hussain, England's finest Test captain of the 21st century, essentially boiled down to this lasting and tacky residue… a realisation that he could, and did, haul England's standards up by their bootstraps, and deliver successes that could not have been contemplated even 18 months before he took charge, but that when it came to beating the very, very best, there was only so much he could ever dredge from the personnel at his disposal.
It was, in fact, a lament in stereo throughout that era of awakening. England beat West Indies at home and Pakistan and Sri Lanka away in 2000-01, but were then trounced 4-1 in consecutive Ashes campaigns in 2001 and 2002-03. With a tough tour of India in between whiles, Hussain found himself yearning for a spinner to turn it at complex angles like Shane Warne and Muthiah Muralidaran (while doing his best to be grateful for Ashley Giles). And at the same time, his sidekick Duncan Fletcher was obsessed with creating an attack filled with 90mph bowlers - and for that fleeting moment of glory in 2005, his monomania was amply born out.
But yes, here England are, two decades later, still trying to solve that apparent riddle of the Sphinx, even as they still find themselves endlessly drawn towards conformity - from the preponderance of right-arm medium-pacers who were chosen to lead the line in Antigua, or the continued inability to trust their legspinner Matt Parkinson for a Test debut, despite dragging him around the globe like some weird novelty baggage-tag that you're too superstitious to do away with.
And yet, there have been glimpses in these last two Tests of a welcome new radical streak to England's cricket, stilted and uncomfortably implemented though it may have been. After all, it was injury and illness, rather than any specific selection U-turn, that earned both Saqib Mahmood and Matthew Fisher their Test debuts in Barbados. And all the while, overseeing the process is Joe Root's captaincy, which clearly engenders deep loyalty, but really isn't given to flights of tactical fancy.
Even so, twice in as many bore-draws, England have made all the running going into the final day of the Test; twice they've thrown the bat with abandon in the third innings to give themselves a chance, and twice they've bowled with spirit and early optimism, only for the realities of the surface and West Indies' proud resilience to grind them down in the final hour.
And that if that new-found lack of conformity has had a focal point, then it has arguably come in the guise of Essex's Dan Lawrence, perhaps the most homespun cricketer that England have fielded in a generation. In four consecutive innings, Lawrence has latched on to the responsibilities of his new No. 4 berth, batting with a notable selflessness, especially in the second innings, that has had distant echoes of Graham Thorpe's attempts to seize the initiative on England's 1993-94 tour of the Caribbean - another campaign that promised new beginnings after a familiar Ashes trouncing.
"It was a joy to bat with him out there," Root said, after Lawrence had made a career-best 91 in their 164-run stand in England's first innings. "He just seems to be growing in confidence all the time. If he plays as he is, it's not going to be long until he gets a big hundred. He was very selfless this week, even in the first innings. The tempo increased, he pushed it along."
After the awfulness of England's Ashes batting, in which they were let down time and again by a failure to embrace the game's fundamentals, Lawrence's approach in this series has offered a very postmodern route to rectitude. On the final morning in Antigua, before England's declaration intentions were clear, it seemed debatable whether his diet of inside-out drives over extra cover was really the best use of a rare chance for Test-match practice. By the time he'd racked up 131 runs from 189 balls in Barbados, however, the methods to his madness were plainer for all to see.
For it's hard to judge Lawrence by the same standards as his contemporaries. Unlike Zak Crawley, for instance, who - through no fault of his own - epitomises the public-school pipelining that is so prevalent among the coming generation of England batters, Lawrence is the son of the groundsman at Chingford CC in East London. His path to cricket has been, in its own way, every bit as exclusive, but so much less regimented; less time spent with the MCC coaching manual in youth-team clinics, and more time with his own whims in the very nets that his dad prepared, and which backed onto his garden.
The upshot is a player who, instead of having his quirks beaten out of him before they could take on any lasting expression, had them hard-coded by his early induction into men's league cricket - he made his debut for Chingford aged 9, and was opening the batting at 14. And while that may be a familiar story for any number of prodigies in the subcontinent in particular (and one of innumerable reasons while English cricket's failure to tap into its vast British Asian demographic has been so self-defeating) it is virtually unheard of in England's more cloistered pathways.
"I do play the odd shot sometimes, and then watch it back and I'm like, 'wow, that looks … strange'," Lawrence told Wisden Cricket Monthly last year. "I learnt quite a lot myself growing up and surrounded by adults you grow up faster, learning how to play against people who are bigger and stronger than you. A lot of my best mates still play at Chingford, so who I am as a person has been moulded by the people at the club."
And yet, for all his batting success, it was arguably with the ball that Lawrence made his most radicalising impact in Barbados. It wasn't that his match figures of 21-6-57-1 were especially game-changing, or that they put Jack Leach's marathon efforts to any shame, as Leach ploughed his way through 94.5 overs in the match, the most by any England bowler since 1962.
Rather it was his optimistic, angular lines of attack that caught the eye, as Lawrence tossed his offbreaks up with that extraordinary, uncultivated, limbs-akimbo action, and ripped them repeatedly off the seam with a wristspinner's verve. Each of his two wickets in the series have come late in the day, against well-set centurions - Nkrumah Bonner in Antigua, and Jermaine Blackwood in Barbados - and in that respect at least, he showed Leach a thing or two about the risk-reward of flight and bite. Maybe, by extension, he also made it easier for England to understand why Parkinson's legbreaks could be the missing link in their attack in Grenada next week.
"He gets so much overspin, and on wickets like this where you get funny bounce and you need to hit the seam to get it to react, he does that very well," Jeetan Patel, England's spin coach, said of Lawrence's bowling. "He offers uniqueness. Everyone can see his action is a bit different, but what he does with the ball is different from other guys as well."
For the time being, though, England's learning curve remains a delicate one. Lawrence, after all, is just two matches into his recall, having twiddled his thumbs in Australia even after the Ashes had gone down the pan - a notable lack of coherence from the selectors given that, only two years beforehand, he had emerged from the 2019-20 Lions tour of Australia as perhaps the surest thing since Kevin Pietersen tore a swathe through India with England A in 2003-04.
On that trip, Lawrence made a brace of centuries in the Lions' four-day games, including a matchwinning 125 in the unofficial Test in Melbourne - their first such representative win in Australia in seven previous campaigns. But the pandemic struck a few weeks later, and despite some sparky displays - not least on debut in Sri Lanka - he's struggled like many of England's young guns to make genuine strides in an environment specifically designed to prevent tight-knit units from forming.
Now, however, there's just the germ of a new dynamic. "It's not a win, but it feels like another step forward as a team," Root said. "We'll keep pushing very hard but there's a number of things that were really promising again. The young guys have enjoyed taking on new roles, and we're finding positions where we're on top and commanding the game. I'm feeling quite confident about certain aspects of how we're playing."
Whether Root has full confidence to embrace non-conformity, however, could define the real strides that this team is able to make.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket