Rory Burns celebrated a maiden Test century as he defied Australia’s bowlers for an entire day to hand England the advantage on day two of the Ashes at Edgbaston.
Burns rebuffed the tourists for six and a half hours and faced 282 balls or his unbeaten 125, an old-fashioned opener’s innings boasting the flinty resolve England have been crying out for since Sir Alastair Cook’s retirement almost a year ago.
Australia allowed him one obvious reprieve, failing to refer an lbw shout that would have ended his stay at 21, but nothing should detract from the deep reserves character he leaned on to see his side to 267-4 – just 17 behind.
Two cheap dismissals against Ireland last week had lowered Burns’ average to 22.28 in seven matches, raising fresh questions over his credentials, but on his biggest stage yet the 28-year-old proved his mettle.
The left-hander does not have a pretty technique but then again neither does Steve Smith, whose brilliant 144 rescued Australia 24 hours earlier, and the pair have been easily the standout performers on a surface that has confounded more fluent strikers.
Burns’ idiosyncrasies have not prevented him racking up more than 8,000 first-class runs and at the 15th attempt he showed he could bring his best game to the highest level.
We connected with some past players, some of the 2005 winners the night before and I was literally ready to run through a brick wall at that stage and get right in amongst it.England’s Rory Burns
Stands of 132 alongside Joe Root (57) and 73 with Ben Stokes (38no) left England in a strong position to press for a decisive first-innings lead.
England resumed on 10 without loss having safely negotiated two tense overs on the first evening, but Australia quickly removed Jason Roy.
Less than three weeks ago Roy hurled in the throw that secured the country’s historic World Cup win, a campaign that relied heavily on his dominant top-order performances. Yet his future as a Test opener, a role he has barely attempted at county level, is unclear.
This was just his second attempt, his knock of 72 against Ireland coming at number three, but he was ill at ease against James Pattinson, twice foreshadowing his own demise with outside edges that did not go to hand.
The first flew between third slip and gully for four, his only runs of the day, and the second hit the turf just in front of the cordon. It was third time lucky for Pattinson, though, with Smith holding a low catch at second slip.
Burns had a point of his own to prove and received an early sharpener when he ducked into a Pat Cummins bouncer that rattled his helmet. Unfazed he settled into his work, gritting his teeth and adding 36 in the morning session.
There were five boundaries, four times using Cummins’ pace against him, but the most important job was chewing up the minutes and taking the hardness of the ball.
He had one notable let-off from Nathan Lyon, who spun one into the pads only to see a sound appeal waved away. Captain Tim Paine had the best seat in the house behind the stumps but decided not to refer a ball that would have knocked over leg.
Root, back at number three for this series at his own request, had an even luckier moment on nine. He was given out caught behind to a glorious delivery from Pattinson, with a woody noise seemingly sealing his fate. Root was convinced he had not made contact and when he called for DRS replays revealed the true story – the off stump had been grazed at 88mph without dislodging the bail.
The lunch break proved a turning point for the skipper, who scraped together 11 from 57 balls before the interval then helped himself to 46 from the same number afterwards.
Burns had his moments in the afternoon, picking up a sequence of boundaries off thick edges towards third man, but his 110-ball fifty underpinned the first hundred stand of the match.
Australia were just about out of ideas when Peter Siddle plucked a wicket from nowhere, halting his follow through to take a one-handed return catch from Root’s straight drive.
Having taken one for 99 in the session the tourists persuaded the umpires the ball had lost shape, securing a replacement that immediately began offering more swing. Buoyed by the change Pattinson and Cummins both struck, Joe Denly lbw for 18 and Jos Buttler nicking off for five.
That left England 194-4 but Burns was now deep in a psychological battle. A crisp drive past mid-off had taken him into the 90s but he was scoreless from his next 18 balls and it took him just under an hour to finally reach his landmark.
He ended a nervy wait on 99 by dabbing to mid-on and dashing through for a single, hurried up by Pattinson’s direct hit. The third umpire was asked to check the run-out but Burns knew he was safe, celebrating in heartfelt fashion.
Stokes proved a handy foil in the closing stages but the occasion belonged to Burns, who fended off the last ball of the day just as he had the first.
He said: “It’s quite hard to put into words, to be an Ashes cricketer in the first place is a wonderful thing.
“We connected with some past players, some of the 2005 winners the night before and I was literally ready to run through a brick wall at that stage and get right in amongst it.
“The night before I probably played my first ball a few times and probably celebrated a hundred a few times. To get over the line is a wonderful feeling.
“Hopefully I’ve still got a few more left in me and hopefully we’ve still got a few more left in us.”
Burns compiled a pair of single-figure scores against Ireland last week, his meagre Test record before his titanic effort here leading to speculation he could be dropped.
But Burns added: “I literally buried my head in the sand to all sorts, comments, media, that sort of stuff. I just tried to get myself around people that back me and back my own skills.”
“I went to someone (coach Neil Stewart) who’s known me since the age of six, he’s been coaching me.
“I just tried to get a bat in hand as much as I could over the last four or five days in-between this (and the Ireland Test). Just replicating what I was doing and staying true to what’s gotten me to where I’ve got to.”
Burns, who had a major moment of fortune on 21 when Australia decided against referring an lbw shout off Nathan Lyon that would have curtailed his innings, spent a little under an hour in the nervous 90s.
The left-hander took 10 balls to get from 99 to three figures, doing so with a clip into the leg-side and scrambling to the non-striker’s end, where James Pattinson’s direct hit had hearts in mouths.
But Burns said: “I knew I was in.
“My general thought when I was on 99 and Nathan Lyon started bowling quite handy stuff was trying to talk myself out of sweeping him. It’s a shot of mine and, one away, you get caught up in that.
“But then I was just trying to stay level and almost wait for the ball that was in my area just to tickle somewhere.
“I missed out on one from (Peter) Siddle the over before so when I nudged into that gap I backed my sprint speed to get over the line.”
After a chastening day for Australia, team mentor Steve Waugh said: “It’s one of those tough days of Test match cricket.
“I thought our boys really toiled well all day. It wasn’t easy there. There were moments where we bowled really well and not much seemed to happen.
“If they do the same thing, we could get a couple of edges first up and it could be totally different. You’ve got to fire up again and give it 100 per cent.”
Australia endured a moment of misfortune when James Pattinson’s delivery grazed Joe Root’s off-stump, only for the bails to remain in place. England’s Test captain was on nine at the time and went on to contribute 57.
Waugh added: “I was down on the ground when it happened and it made a funny noise. I wasn’t sure what it was. But that is just bad luck, you are a millimetre from taking a wicket.
“From a batting point of view you have to cash in on those moments. Maybe it was a sign that it wasn’t going to be our day.”