CricViz analyst Ben Jones looks at the newcomer in England’s Test squad.
Away from the more high profile axings from England’s touring party for the West Indies Tests, Rory Burns might fly under the radar. Despite scoring more Test runs than any Englishman not named Joe Root last year, the Surrey opener has been dispensed, with after an Ashes tour which erred more towards hapless than incompetent. Dropped catches, run outs, bizarre net sessions, all on top of that iconic first ball dismissal at the Gabba, meant he was going to do well to survive such a chaotic few weeks.
You can make a strong argument that Burns has been England’s most successful post-Strauss opener, lasting 32 matches and averaging above 30, a galling but very real marker of “success” in this era. But the combination of his chaotic month, dwindling returns, and an awful record against Roston Chase – his issues against spin longstanding – have made his removal from the squad inevitable.
His replacement is the Durham opener Alex Lees. Lees, a Yorkshire-born left-hander who captained the England Lions on the last tour of Australia, is one of only two members of the England Test squad for the West Indies tour to have never played international cricket. As is often the case with domestic players, plenty of England fans will have heard the name bandied around, particularly in the early days when he broke through, not at the Riverside, but at his native Headingley. Associations with early recommendations from previously sainted Yorkshire names will ring a bell, the laurels thrown at any Future England Captain as they burst onto the scene.
But away from reputation and narrative, how does Lees’ record actually stand up?
Well, in some ways Lees is a natural successor to Burns, when it comes to how they have put together their case for selection. Rather than one season of outrageous run-making, Lees has been consistently solid for a long time now; in the last decade, Lees has averaged 40+ while opening the batting in four separate seasons, a feat beaten by just three English openers. While some might say one of them (Chris Dent) is equally deserving of a run at Test level, another (Alastair Cook) has certainly had their time, while the other – well, the other is Rory Burns. In a landscape where the flavour of the month is often made by the odd innings or burst of form, this isn’t a proven route to Test selection, but given Burns’ pretty solid record it might be a compelling one.
Equally, if you do look at recent form, then Lees’ case is still strong. In the last three County Championship / Bob Willis Trophy seasons, only one English opener (Warwickshire’s Rob Yates) has more centuries than the 28 year old. Having notched up five tons, Lees places himself alongside other names – Sam Robson, Dom Sibley, Hasan Azad – who have been suggested for or trialled in the opening berth. Only two English openers have scored more runs opening the batting in the last three years, and only one of them (Cook) has averaged more than Lees in that time.
Beyond the scorecard, there are some encouraging signs, and some less so. Lees’ false shot percentage (the frequency with which he misses or edges the ball) is among the lowest in the country, playing with a reassuring degree of control. While that does not necessarily translate to overall success in Test cricket, it does tend to translate to control, with Sibley’s transition to international cricket being the perfect example.
However, by another metric, Lees’ control is slightly more middle of the road. His Contact Average (a metric which places greater emphasis on runs scored with a clean connection, and less emphasis on those from edges or mistimed shots) is below 30, and while that isn’t uncommon for opening batters in county cricket – it is a seriously tough job – it does throw up some other candidates. Jake Libby, Alex Davies, and Dent all stand out by this measure, as does the South African born Ricardo Vasconcelos who is not yet eligible for England, despite a stated aim to qualify. Lees’ record in this regard is by no means poor, but it does suggest that his approach is good enough to survive in Test cricket, he may find his run scoring opportunities limited.
In terms of his scoring areas, Lees is a classic opening batsman. Against pace, he is strong through the covers (averaging comfortably over 50 with the drive since moving to Durham) as well as square of the wicket (averaging over 100 with the cut shot). A few dismissals with miscued pull shots may be a cause for concern, but such is the low bounce that characterises most domestic conditions in the UK, it can be tough to diagnose any short ball “issues” before a player reaches the Test arena.
However, after a run of English openers with unorthodox techniques, Lees is not an immediate return to a textbook, classical style. In conversation with Yas Rana on Wisden.com, Lees discussed his willingness to adapt his approach to the challenge in front of him:
“For bowlers bowling around the wicket to me – not to everyone – I’ve batted a foot outside off stump and a foot outside my crease to get outside the line of off stump. Or if it’s a pretty good wicket and all they’re trying to do is get you out lbw, I’ll move to middle or leg stump. That’s the sort of batsmanship or fluidity that I have that’s changed a little bit. Just having the fluidity in your game and being brave enough to do it.”
In that particular example, his method does seem to have been successful – since moving to Durham he averages 43 against right arm seamers from that round the wicket angle – but it’s that flexibility which does draw the eye. Much has been written about off stump guards over the last 12 months, and of how the conditions in county cricket are forcing players to adopt more extreme methods. That is clearly true, and it would be disingenuous of us to blindly praise a player for tweaking their technique when “knowing your game” is a similarly lauded virtue. Equally, if an opening batsman in England manages to solve the problem of facing seam bowling, you are inclined to respect the returns.
Lees heads to the Caribbean all but certain to play every Test match, with England taking no reserve opener, and barely a reserve No.3. With Zak Crawley’s place far from certain in the medium term, there is reasonable wiggle-room for Lees as he finds his feet in international cricket, no obvious competitor breathing down his neck, until the home summer begins at least. The numbers invite gentle optimism, weighed down by the realism of knowing that most of England’s openers in the last decade have arrived with similar expectations.