Ashes 2019: 'Rory Burns cracks England's opener curse with century'

By Tom FordyceChief sports writer

There have been a few epic curses in English sport. For a long time it was penalty shootouts. For a while longer it may be home-grown Open winners.

Very little has compared to the hunt for opening batsmen for the Test team. So drawn out and fruitless was the search for a successor for Andrew Strauss that the man he left high and dry decided to retire himself.

Men have come to replace Strauss and Alastair Cook and men have gone, some back to obscurity, some to the England team to fail again.

Right-handers, left-handers. Men from London, Yorkshire, Melbourne and South Africa. Accumulators, dashers, limpets. The bearded, the bald and the prematurely aged.

It's a decent quiz question for those unable to sleep on these sticky summer nights. How many of the chosen ones and twos have stuck in the memory over the past seven years? A merry-go-round of misery, a bonfire of dreams and vanities. Compton, Carberry, Lyth. Robson, Hales, Jennings. Duckett, Hameed, Stoneman.

You could forgive the doubters wondering if Rory Burns was not a couple of Tests away from the same fate. So powerful is the England openers' curse that Burns could enjoy five consecutive seasons of scoring 1,000 or more first-class runs for Surrey, be picked for his country and then run himself out in his first Test.

All that form and then none at all. Fourteen Test innings for England before this series, an average of just 22. Six in the first innings against Ireland a week ago, six in the second too.

Not since the middle of May had Burns made a half-century against the red ball, and when he began again at Edgbaston in the first Ashes Test on Friday morning, all the caveats and pitfalls were there once again.

Burns does not have the Test record of Australia's Steve Smith but he has almost as many idiosyncrasies at the crease. He half-squats, and then does it again. His head swivels to the leg side as if an old mate has just called his name, and his bat flaps towards gully as if he is motioning the fielder to be quiet.

For a long time through his all-day innings he looked as if he might depart at any moment. There were edges wide of the slips and edges through the slips. Gully appeared to have a strange force-field around him so that balls could pass either side of the fielder with impunity but never go straight to him.

Burns was not alone with the good fortune. At the other end Joe Root was given out caught behind and then reprieved on the basis that the ball had hit his off stump rather than his bat. The bail jumped and sat. It was the kind of day to make bowlers march down to third man between overs and chew through boundary ropes.

While Root ran out of lives, at times Burns appeared accidentally immortal. On 21 he was given not out to an lbw shout from Nathan Lyon that was hitting leg stump. Because this was his day of days, Lyon and his team-mates decided not to review it.

So often did Burns ride his luck that he will have sat down for dinner with saddle sores. More of his runs came behind square on the off side than anywhere else. Not a single edge carried or went to hand.

Because this is Test cricket, because this is the Ashes, none of that matters a jot.

Batting at this level is not about aesthetics. There are no points given for artistic merit. It is about scoring runs, however you may do it, and it is about keeping the doubts at bay even when others are suffocated by them. Whatever gets you through the night is OK.

Burns kept going, until suddenly he couldn't.

It is hard enough getting into the nineties. For Burns the arrival was actually the easy bit. It was leaving them that might have broken weaker men.

It was his misfortune that the umpires chose that moment to swap an old ball doing nothing for a new old one doing absolutely everything. Suddenly there was swing, and bounce, and danger in almost every delivery.

It was too much for Joe Denly, plumb lbw, and it was too much for Jos Butler, turned square and caught off an outside edge. It was almost too much for Burns, beaten four times in one Pat Cummins over on 92, and then frozen on that score for another minute, and another, and another.

If the nineties are habitually nervous this was torture by standing still. Half an hour went by without another run from his bat. Cummins suddenly looked unplayable. James Pattinson hooped it like Terry Alderman.

On 99 Burns played and missed against Lyon. Two balls later he did it again.

It would be close to an hour before he squeezed away the single that finally broke the shackles. It felt entirely fitting that as he was celebrating the umpire was signalling for a replay to check if he had been run out.

The relief and applause around Edgbaston was immense. Five hours and 19 minutes Burns had stood firm for his century, an epic in concentration, a portrait of tenacity and self-belief.

By the end of the day he had faced 282 balls. 125 runs from his bat, England just 17 runs short of Australia's first-innings 284 with six wickets in hand. As much as Smith's brilliant 144 on the first day rescued Australia, so Burns, streaky or not, had saved England's bacon too.

If Burns had waited an age then England's supporters have waited even longer for a display like this.

This was only the fifth hundred from an England opener in their last cumulative 100 innings. Burns is the first England opener not called Alastair Cook to score a Test century on home soil since May 2015. He is the first England opener to score a ton in the first Test of a home Ashes series since Graham Gooch in 1993.

Ashes centuries change careers. This one might have changed the match and balance of the series too. The curse is cracked if not yet gone for good.

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