When the Australian selectors turned to Joe Burns to fill Chris Rogers’ vacancy it came with a familiar urge from respected watchers outside the side: pick and stick, not least from Rogers himself. Their reward for doing so is an instrumental century for the opener, his best yet.
While Burns says that selection isn’t something that he fixates on, he wouldn’t be human if it hadn’t pervaded his recent thinking, even after two tons in the space of one summer doing the job. After all, this isn’t yet anything like the Australian side of the 1990s and the early 2000s; it isn’t harder to get out of than it is to get into. Or shouldn’t be, at any rate.
Ducks are an occupational hazard for openers, but Burns’ blob in Wellington meant he had potentially only this innings to make this tour a winner. It’s complicated by the fact that Shaun Marsh is the reserve batsmen, who successive selection panels have a history of supporting, and with a big century in his previous start.
Usman Khawaja reflected on his own earlier days in the Australian XI last weekend by saying he never felt comfortable on the basis that he was always playing to retain his spot. The fact that selectors retained Burns for the Boxing Day Test in front of Marsh symbolised that the Khawaja comparison isn’t a like-for-like, but there’s no disputing that runs here were vital to extinguish any discussion before the winter tour of Sri Lanka.
When the job was done, 170 runs to the better after a 289-run stand with his captain Steve Smith, Burns acknowledged that natural nerves were building. The highlight of his innings? “Getting off the mark [for my] first runs on tour,” he said.
“I was pretty nervous trying to get those first runs, I was thinking about it all week.”
It’s an instructive response. As is the fact that he said that his first net session in Christchurch was “probably the worst” he ever had, noting that he played and missed at 95 per cent of balls he faced. After his four-ball stay last Friday, retaining faith in himself, he said, was vital to turning it around.
It’s easy to run through a scorecard with a couple of centuries and conclude a relatively straightforward day at the office. It did look something like that as the ball got as tired as the Black Caps’ spinner-less attack, but only after Burns and Smith systematically eliminated the real and present danger. It was never easy.
New Zealand had to deliver and bowled accordingly. After turning day one on its head to take a modest ascendancy, breakthroughs were the only way to reinforce the Black Caps’ primacy. Early on Trent Boult and Matt Henry engaged in an over-to-over arm wrestle with Burns after Khawaja showed his human side by nicking off to Boult. Smith joined Burns for this defining period.
After surviving the initial passage of play with a series of leaves and defensive strokes, pronounced footwork a feature, Henry had Burns given caught behind after a lifting ball followed his outstretched leaving arms and deviated. On review, it did, but via shirt not glove.
Two balls after the reprieve he stroked Henry to the cover boundary in the first of a series of textbook drives. Burns was away. He repeated the dose twice against Neil Wagner to earn his half century, before pulling the same bowling to the fence the begin the next phase in emphatic style.
Wagner’s approach altered, upon consultation with McCullum shifting into a legside dominated attack with a three-six field; short balls on the line of the body becoming the standard. Burns initial patience in response turned into comfortable scoring, only a top-edged hook shot causing any pause for concern before lunch.
As the Kiwis quicks toiled, longing for the second new ball, Burns gently worked the percentages and accumulated. Hard running with Smith defined the period, regularly taking on sweepers for twos where on another day one may suffice.
When running two edges past gully in the space of an over, Burns’ century was secured 191 balls. It wasn’t a knock for the ages, but in terms of determined application, it was a statement to any remaining doubters, and validation of support from Rogers and others.
The new ball’s potency lasted ever briefly, the incumbents’ stand passing 200 as Burns now motored. His 150 came with a push to point – an area where both scored freely – before Smith’s shot of the day, the most crisp of on-drives, taking their partnership to 250.
Soon, they had accounted for the Chappell brothers’ record for a third-wicket stand against New Zealand and Burns himself now had the highest score for an Australian opener in New Zealand, eclipsing Ian Redpath’s 159 from 1974.
All of a sudden, with a minimum of fuss, this was a really big day.
Thirteen minutes shy of stumps, Burns hooked his 321st ball to Martin Guptill. Wagner’s plan had worked, albeit hours too late. Smith repeated the dose almost exactly as stumps loomed, but no one could begrudge; their work was done.
“My best,” Burns assessed of the innings after play when compared his previous Test hundreds, saying this was because of the “context of the game and the fact it was away from home”.
“This one’s technically my best because of the way I tried to play and I was able to do it for long periods,” he added.
It was also the first time he needed to craft a big performance in response to legitimate runs on the board from the opposition. Scores on day one of a Test match is bread and butter for an opener, but so is slowly chipping away at a total when batting second.
Meanwhile, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on how this latest Smith hundred augments his stunning numbers yet further.
With machine-like efficiency, he now has 14 Test tons in 41 Tests, a strike-rate only three can match in the history of the game. On Sunday, his Test average went above 59 for the first time; two years ago it was 37.60.
The numbers are starker when measuring from when he notched his maiden century in August 2013. In those 30 Tests (where he has just under one century in every two played) his batting average is 74.
Less obvious but equally notable is that this is the 11st time in Test cricket he has faced more than 200 balls. As captain, he has reflected time and again on the need for batsmen to play themselves in for longer, and that’s what he did. “No run!” he bellows with every defensive stroke as he slowly builds in confidence and timing to a point where he can strike with fluency.
That it was a chanceless hand until his demise, after also copping a serious whack to the back of the helmet in the process, only reinforces the extent to which he’s got this game worked out.
With both established men falling, we’re partially back to where we started with New Zealand returning tomorrow needing a blistering session. Their healthy first innings score provided some latitude today, but with their lead back to single digits, that’s all but evaporated.