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Cricket news - Time for Burns to play it by ear
On the final evening of the 2018 summer, Rory Burns is nursing a Guinness in the Bee Hive pub, barely a six-hit away from the Oval. He and his Surrey teammates had just toasted their County Championship win at their end of season dinner, and a handful moved on to continue socialising.
It is far from raucous - this, by rough estimation, was the 25th celebration of a title sewn up a fortnight before. But as the Surrey staff share stories of success, their captain Burns is standing at the other end of the bar, looking into a laptop. Specifically an Excel spreadsheet with a breakdown of his first-class numbers against a variety of spinners.
Burns was aware of a statistic doing the rounds that he averages "just" 27 against spin in the County Championship. It was an obvious talking point ahead of a winter's tour of Sri Lanka - his first ever assignment as a Test cricketer - and he was curious about the breakdown.
When he heard the person responsible for pulling together that statistic was in the same pub, he went over and offered a casual, "So I hear I can't play spin?" Part piss-taking, part genuinely inquisitive. Out came the laptop.
Burns went on to have a modest time in Sri Lanka, but did produce match-winning turns in the second Test with 43 and 63 - the latter earning praise from a "staggered" Michael Atherton, who felt the left-hander's displays at Pallekele were "top class".
There are a couple of takeaways. The first is that Burns' curious mind ensures he is a quick learner.
He queried the sample size of the balls faced against spinners to give him this 27 average. As an opener, he'd not come up against much of real substance, especially on traditional county pitches. On his particular purple patch, he'd often be on a score of note, trying to push the boat out, when the slower bowlers came to give the quicker ones a rest. But he accepted there were limitations in his game.
So, he did as he always has done. He asked for help. This time, from former Surrey teammate Kumar Sangakkara. Indeed, if you look at how Burns approaches his cricket, most of it is his own - the technique, for example - but other aspects are cherry-picked from a wide array of sources.
He looks to the sun to dilate his pupils when he walks out to bat, something he picked up from former Australia left-hander Phil Jacques. The diary he keeps with various notes is an influence from another Aussie southpaw Ed Cowan, and national selector Ed Smith.
The second aspect is that Burns knows how the media works.
He came across the spin statistic while monitoring coverage of him in the press and on Twitter. And as questions were asked of Mark Stoneman and then Keaton Jennings, he noticed he was getting more glowing coverage. He also expected a bit of push back. Of how five seasons in a row of 1,000-plus Championship runs owed mostly to playing mostly at the batsman-friendly Oval. Of that technique. Oh and of course - 27 against spin.
The 28-year old also saw, in the treatment of Jennings, how short a grace period an England opener has in this era. There is every chance, tucked away in his little black book are some nuggets on how his observations on how he might cope when those sights are set on him. As they seem to be now.
A pair of sixes in the match leave Burns with an average of 22.28 from 14 innings which, in many people's eyes, is enough to judge him outright. As ever, an Ashes series around the corner means sensible thinking takes a back seat. This, lest we forget, is the first of his seven Tests in home conditions. It is worth remembering over the last few years no opener has come close to his returns. Oval pitch, funky back-lift and all.
That's not to say there isn't reasonable concerns to be had. Both edges in this match - off the bowling of Tim Murtagh and Boyd Rankin - came while defending balls not challenging his stumps. CricViz has determined that of 212 balls he has faced in this particular channel, he has only scored 40 runs and been dismissed five times. His technique also seems to have changed slightly. And as is the way with home-spun methods, they look more ungainly when they aren't working.
What compounded Burns' misery was the manner in which nightwatchman Jack Leach was playing with the freedom of a substitute teacher not bound to the syllabus, getting students onside as quickly as pressing play on a video. Leach's enterprising innings came to an end on 92 and, in that deep dark place cricket opens up inside your soul, perhaps Burns was pleased a player with a first class average of 4 this year did not nab a Test hundred before he did.
It will also help, again in that bitter cricket way, that England let slip a crucial position and now find themselves up against it. The collapse of 68 for 6 undid the work of Leach and Burns' Surrey teammate Jason Roy (72). Leading by just 180, Ireland are favourites.
Burns will certainly start the Ashes series. But between now and next Thursday's toss in Birmingham, he will have to draw on those qualities that got him to this level. Of learning and adapting. And knowing how to cope when his name comes up in discussions over a variety of media platforms, as it invariably will.
In every way, staying true to himself is his best shot.
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