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Rory Burns and the Sweep

Ben Jones analyses how England’s opener swept through his spin issues.

Cricket is all about balance. Rory Burns is very strong against pace bowling, but quite bad against spin. Everything evens out.

Against pace, Burns is stronger than most players in the world. His batting average against seamers in Test cricket – 41.55 – is right up there with the best and most established players in the world.

Even more than this, his record against balls on his stumps is world-beating. His average against balls which would have hit or clipped the stumps is a remarkable 83. The only batsman in the last decade to exceed that is Adam Voges. Against the seamers, Burns’ technique works, perfectly.

With this in mind, the lid on his Test performances so far, has been his game against spin. Before this Test, Burns averaged 25.36 against spin in Test cricket. Concerns raised before his arrival in the England team, from those within the England camp, have been broadly well-founded; Burns has struggled against spin at this level.

This is why today Jason Holder, with his classic tactical assuredness, turned to his spinners early in the piece. England needed to score briskly, if not rapidly, in order to set up a declaration that gave them a shot at winning the Test and with it the Wisden Trophy. Holder was faced with Dom Sibley – who has the highest dot ball percentage against spin in this series of any England batsman – and Burns, so spin was the obvious option. Roston Chase came into the attack in the 11th over. Before this innings, Chase averaged 3.75 against Burns, and the England opener has been a sitting duck. The squeeze was on.

Burns was in his shell, at the start of his innings – from the first 17 balls he faced from the spinners, he scored just one run. Holder had called it perfectly; England’s openers, regardless of their desire to score some sharp runs, weren’t able to combat the spin. Burns was rocking back, trying to play Chase off the pitch, getting himself into all sorts of bother with the cut shot as Chase’s bounce disrupted his rhythm, forcing him to lose his balance.

That is, until Burns started sweeping.

In the first two Tests, Burns didn’t sweep a single delivery. Not a slog sweep, not a reverse sweep, not a conventional sweep. He danced down, or he rocked back and cut. Those were his methods, and they did not work. Chase has had him on toast. Yet today, waiting for the bad ball wasn’t an option, Burns didn’t have the excuse to wait for the bad ball. He had to be proactive, and so he swept. A lot.

All in all, he played 15 sweeps today, a mixture of down-on-one-knee slog sweeps trying to beat the fielder on the rope, and classic dabs behind square. It was an informed, intelligent option; in England, where pitches don’t tend to break up as much, the sweep shot is a good choice. Particularly, as you can see below, when the bowling is slower. Today, Rahkeem Cornwall and Roston Chase were both bowling at around 83kph, and Burns responded with a contextually appropriate solution to his ongoig troubles.

There’s a certain appropriateness to the whole thing. The series in which Burns made his Test debut was England’s second  “sweepiest” series since records have been kept; 12% of their shots on that 2018 Sri Lanka were sweeps, of some kind or other. In the spirit of the moment, Burns got in on the act; his debut series is the only time he’s swept the ball more than he did today.

Let’s not pretend that Burns has somehow vanquished his spin foe. If Joshua da Silva is marginally more fleet of foot and attuned to the pace of the match, then he completes a stumping as Burns runs past a Chase delivery. If Jason Holder isn’t off the field when Cornwall strikes Burns on the pad, then the West Indies could well have referred the LBW appeal and would have seen that gamble rewarded. What’s interesting is that with this sort of innings, Burns may have started to find his identity, within this England opening pair.

Sibley and Burns have opened together before, in first-class cricket for Surrey. In the 2016, that was the first choice opening pair down at The Oval. Their average partnership yielded 56.56 runs, making it the second highest averaging opening pair in Surrey’s esteemed County Championship history. While they do play in broadly similar manners – conservative, controlled, old-fashioned red ball openers – there are differences.

Burns plays at a lot more deliveries than his partner. In Tests, Sibley leaves 33% of his deliveries from pace; Burns, 29%. Not a huge gulf, but an indication of their method; Sibley’s Expected Leave Percentage – given the deliveries he has faced – is 24%, while for Burns, it’s 25%. Despite the fact the balls he’s facing should mean Burns leaves the ball more, he’s left less. He is, ultimately, a more assertive opener. In county cricket Burns scores at 3rpo, while Sibley scores at less than 2.5rpo.

Burns doesn’t need to become a “strokeplaying” opener, as Trevor Bayliss might term it. And yet the presence of Sibley as his partner might allow Burns to play slightly more expressively than alongside someone like Jason Roy, his partner last summer. England’s opening pair this series have scored more slowly than any other England pair since 2000, barring when they toured the UAE in 2012. The gradual blend of light and shade might help move things along. Balance is everything.

For Burns himself, the opportunity to attack the spinners might be a better option than anything he’s tried to date. Regardless, England will go to India this winter, all being well. Sweeping on those pitches, where the ball tends to keep lower, is a different prospect, as is sweeping a player like Ravindra Jadeja, darting the ball through. Whether Burns can continue this revival against spin in tougher conditions, against better bowlers, is still up for debate, but at the very least today has laid a template. For Burns, scoring quicker against the slower bowlers might be the answer.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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