Rory Burns returned to the nets for the first time in six months on Monday, confident that the ankle that he injured during football practice in South Africa has fully recovered, but admitting that his time out of the Test team had come at a frustrating moment in his career.
Burns, who turns 30 in August, seemed to have established himself as Alastair Cook’s heir at the top of England’s batting order in 2019, with a maiden Test century in the first Ashes Test at Edgbaston, and a further 101 in New Zealand in November.
However, his run in the side came to an abrupt halt when he sustained ligament damage during a seemingly innocuous tackle from Joe Root, as England practised at Newlands ahead of the second Test. Having made 84 in the second innings of England’s series-opening defeat at Centurion, Burns returned home for surgery as Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley played key roles in England’s three subsequent wins.
“It was obviously frustrating,” Burns told Sky Sports’ Cricket Show. “It was my first injury of any note in my career, and to pick it up at a time where you feel like you’re developing and moving along in the right direction quite nicely was frustrating.
“The turn wasn’t bad before it though, so we’ll always remember that,” he joked, referencing an impressive piece of footwork that was caught on camera moments before the injury. “But yeah, it was obviously frustrating, but it’s nice to be back now, with a bat in my hand, and almost getting back to it.
“The ankle’s strong,” he added. “I’d have been able to start the county season if that had gone ahead on time, so that was a big positive, but instead it’s been another couple of months that I’ve been able to ease it back, and that’s probably helped a little bit.”
With his unusual batting stance, which involves glancing over his right shoulder to ensure his alignment at the crease prior to delivery, Burns admits that his technique has more “moving parts” than some, which made his initial return to the nets a bit of a struggle.
But, he added, his decision in the wake of his injury, to jot down his thoughts about where he was at as a batsman, had helped him to pick up where he had left off with the England team.
“There are a lot of moving parts, but it’s more of a rhythm thing,” he said. “It’s about feeling how those movements go in. The idiosyncrasies probably didn’t quite click into gear to start with, but I tried to leave myself fresh going into that first net on Monday.
“I didn’t try and think about it too much. When I got injured in South Africa, I wrote down all the things I though I’ve been doing well, what I’d enjoyed about my batting, in terms of feelings. So I had little read of them on Tuesday, and luckily it’s got a little bit better on Wednesday and Thursday.”
So far, Burns’ work at the Kia Oval has been limited to one-on-one sessions – principally with Graham Thorpe, the England batting coach – which he said had not felt too different to his usual training regime. The players are due to resume “cluster” training in the coming days, when the bowlers have built up their workloads, and Burns is hopeful he’ll be ready for action by then.
“A couple of hits down the line, I’ve remembered how to pick the bat up which is quite nice, and it’s good to be back,” he said. “I had a set of ten throwdowns, the day before we got locked down, but the last time [I batted properly] would have been January 1, six months ago.”
England know they will be in for a stiff test when the West Indies series begins, not least from the battery of fast bowlers who played a central role in their side’s 2-1 series win in the Caribbean last year.
Shannon Gabriel is missing on this occasion, as he recovers from injury, but Kemar Roach, Oshane Thomas and Alzarri Joseph have been joined by the former Under-19 World Cup winner, Chemar Holder, who claimed 36 wickets in West Indies’ domestic competition this year.
“The last time we played each other they won, so they’re no slouches,” Burns said. “Their bowling attack caused us a lot of problems, they are very skilful and they’ve got some pace, certainly. I remember walking around the pitch in the first Test and seeing [Gabriel and Thomas] bowling, and I thought, oof, this will be quite tasty. It’s going to be a stiff test, no matter what comes.
“The biggest difference between county cricket and international cricket is the intensity of the game,” he added. “Everything just ramps up, especially the consistent pace of bowlers, and you have to make yourself sharp by overtraining on speed and short balls, areas where you are going to get targeted by the opposition.”
England are due to assemble at the Ageas Bowl in late June ahead of the first Test on July 8. However, Burns said that, after some initial concerns about playing cricket during the Covid-19 outbreak, he was confident that the ECB’s provisions would ensure the players’ safety throughout the series.
“There were some hypothetical scenarios about what it might that look like, what risk factors there were,” he said. “But the messaging that we’ve had has put our minds at ease about the situations that we might find ourselves in.
“The explanations we’ve had are really positive, and I think a lot of the guys just looking forward to playing some cricket.”