There’s just too much in common between Rory Burns and Dean Elgar. Both are left-handed openers. Both have unusual, uncanny batting techniques. Both score runs yet makes them look as hard as it possibly can be. Both give chances in plenty but manage to survive and fight on. Both look ugly when out of form, but still prove to be effective.
If countering one of them is hard enough, Surrey added double protection by bringing Elgar into the side to join Burns in 2018. Expectedly, the two notched up some memorable partnerships – a 166 vs Somerset at Taunton in 2019 and a 148 vs Essex at Chelmsford in September 2018 being notable ones.
Most likely, the two would have waxed eloquent in the dressing room discussions about each other’s weaknesses ahead of the ongoing series between South Africa and England. Whatever those hard-nosed tips were, they almost reaped instant dividends for either party.
If Elgar was out to a leg-side filth – “yeah, let’s target his fourth stump..on the other side I mean,” Burns might have quipped – from James Anderson, Burns was given a thorough working over by Kagiso Rabada in the first essay. Although the England opener overturned his first ball dismissal, he was soon snapped up by the pinpoint execution of a similar plan from Vernon Philander.
There’s a quality about these hard-nosed, rhino-skinned left-handed openers – when they know they are being targeted, they strike back. Take Elgar’s hundred in Vishakapatnam and 48 at Pune earlier this year in India as examples. Or jog back to Burns’ 133-ball 84 at Bridgetown. Even with a distinct lack of flair, the two know to score quickly in their own unique ways when they know they are under the pump.
In the second innings at Centurion, Burns was so Elgar-like with his ugly, yet effective counter punching. Off the first ball an attempted flick scooted through gully off the outside half of the bat – not for the first time we have seen that happen off Burns’ bat. By the ninth over, Burns had raced to 20 in 26 balls, thwarting South Africa’s plans of getting an early breakthrough while his partner Dominic Sibley played the resolute second-fiddle.
Then came the customary edginess characteristic of the left-handed opener. A nick off Vernon Philander went to Rassie van der Dussen at first slip. He spilled the catch after Quinton de Kock dove in front of him to give Burns a life.
Throughout his gritty innings, Burns continued to play and miss or find the outside half of his bat. Unperturbed by his own uncertainty, each time the South African pacers went straighter, Burns was ever ready to flick them with disdain. The flick is a favoured stroke for the left-hander and the Proteas were forced to deviate off their fourth-stump plans – perhaps due to the early aggression – to feed him a lot of balls on the stumps. 29 off his 77 runs came off flick shots, a certain amount of authority exhibited each time by the left-hander when playing the stroke.
At the other end of the spectrum was the other Burns, all edgy, all uncertain, yet striving to hold the run-chase together. He had Keshav Maharaj, Quinton de Kock and men around the bat gasping after each ball in the final few minutes of day three, but his wicket eluded the Proteas.
Nearly 10 months back, Sri Lanka went into day four at Durban with seven wickets remaining and 221 runs to create history. A Kusal Perera blinder took them over the line. Months later, England themselves needed 203 to win with seven wickets remaining at Headingley against the Aussies in the Ashes and Ben Stokes took them to a ravishing win with a century and a stunning ninth-wicket partnership.
At Centurion heading into day four, England are better placed than at Headingley or Sri Lanka at Durban. Unlike those once-in-a-lifetime miracles, England at Centurion have a man whose batting is no miracle, yet all resolve. 255 with nine wickets in hand is no improbable task, but 300-plus targets have only ever been chased down five times in South Africa, none of them at Centurion, where 251 is the highest run-chase.
That seemed to be of little botheration to Burns, who ended the day on 77 off 117 balls, showing immense resolve after the early counterattack to stay put at the wicket. After a Test ton in Hamilton in the previous series, he showed great disappointment at not converting it into something more substantial, calling the knock “bittersweet”. Here’s a very quick chance at redemption for the Surrey opener who made 1000-plus runs in five successive seasons to make it to the national side.
The occasion – a record run-chase of 376 beckons England – screams for a Ben Stokes special or a Jos Buttler blitz. But given how unpredictable the wicket has behaved – as many as 15 wickets falling on day two but just seven on day three – the glamour and glitz might just have to be shed for sheer ugliness and Burns is good at doing just that. Day in, day out.