Updated: Jun 16
Alex Lees replaces Rory Burns in England Test squad as opener. Alex Lees has experience of playing over 135 First Class games.
After a distressing time in Test cricket where England lost to West Indies in the Caribbean islands after a nightmare Ashes tour, England, under the guidance of new coach Brendon McCullum and leader Ben Stokes, have started very positively beating the World Test champions, New Zealand to kick off the 2022 home summer at Lord’s.
One of the main reasons for their downfall has been their poor batting which is plagued by awkward techniques cutting across the spectrum with the possible exception of former skipper Joe Root.
After carrying the England side for the whole of last year, Root had done the same again at the ‘Mecca of Cricket’ scoring another daddy hundred. But England have to keep it cool and make sure that they don’t always get reduced to 20-2 or 50-5.
To sort out those issues, England should fancy their openers to offer them a good start which doesn’t mean they always need to have 80-0 or 150-1 but ensure that the shine of the new ball gets erased and it becomes relatively easy for batters to follow.
Alex Lees: The Familiar name from the Country Championship
Since the retirement of the great Sir Alastair Cook, England have tried several options for their opening combo. Of the 14 top six batters to debut for England since 2016, Rory Burns, who has been axed from the current England side after last winter, is the only one to average more than 30 in the longest format. Seven of those 14, who are aged 24 or younger, have produced six hundreds from a combined 102 Tests.
In the context of finding young openers from first-class cricket whose averages have been above 30, it’s expected from them to thrive in the long format. It’s easy to forget the left-hand batter from Durham, Alex Lees, who captained England Lions on their recent tour of Australia. By the age of 21, he was a County Championship winner averaging 42.75 in first-class cricket.
The left-hand batter who has 7,783 runs in 136 first-class matches at an average of 35.70 and a best of 275*, counted Geoffrey Boycott as one of his idols and at the early stage of his career looked to follow the path of his Yorkshire County contemporaries - Jonny Bairstow, Joe Root, Adam Lyth and Gary Ballance.
The moment of moving to Durham
Just a few years into his career, Lees who saw a marginal drop in his game, decided to leave his boyhood club, Yorkshire and moved a bit north to Durham. There were two things that cemented the decision - one was to give access to his newly married family with his friends and secondly, watching his friends earn an England ticket by moving.
“There’d been some top order players who’d recently played for England - Jennings and Stoneman, who had done really well at Durham and got runs,” Lees expressed to Wisden. “Personally, I’d got runs playing for Yorkshire at Durham.”
And the change worked as he averaged 39.68 across the last three summers. Even though he didn’t get back the lost touch, the stats were too good when compared with his competitors for England’s opening berth.
The Jason Gillespie touch in Lee’s career
When Alex Lees was a young star at Yorkshire, former Australia pacer and the county side’s coach Jason Gillespie used to call him “Haydos”, a nod to his former team-mate Matthew Hayden, a dashing and powerful left-hand opener.
However, the temperament and the approach of batting exhibited by Lees was in the books of neither Hayden nor Marcus Trescothick, another childhood hero who is now England’s batting coach. Lees seemed to love the style of Root and the Yorkshire batters who just like those old school batters, tend to give respect to good bowling and can leave the ball throughout the day.
“I’d obviously flourished under Jason Gillespie; unfortunately, sometimes in any sort of industry you cannot quite get on with people or have challenging circumstances around that,” Lees commented. “I think, if Dizzy (Gillespie) had stayed, I could have played 20-30 Tests.”
A promising but inconsistent start to Test career
On the recent tour of Caribbean islands, Lees began positively with a 65 in 214 balls in the warm-up match before scoring 4, 6, 30, 24, and 31 twice during the three Tests against the West Indies. Leaving the first Test match, he had got starts but failed to convert it into big scores.
Even in the series opener against New Zealand at Lord’s, in both innings, Lees was dismissed on 25 & 20, after facing a decent number of deliveries. He too, like other England batters, has a technical issue.
In the first innings, to negate the swing from Tim Southee and Trent Boult, he was standing on the middle and off stump, constantly leaving the leg stump. Southee going round the wicket got rid of him thanks to an LBW on umpire’s call. And this is a reason why he has been a candidate for LBW and bowled; in just eight innings so far, he has been a victim of a total of six LBWs and bowled dismissals.
In the second innings, when he thought of staying on the middle and leg stump, he seemed to have hardly any clue about his off stump and as a result, in an aim of leaving a ball from Kyle Jameison, saw his off-stump cartwheeling.
The short but exciting second innings at Lord’s
Senior team-mates including Ben Stokes, James Anderson and Root have all publicly praised the short second innings knock of Lees at Lord’s. Stokes, coming a yard ahead, had said that it was the best he had seen Lees bat in recent times. But the left-hand opener knows that those 20 or 25 are never going to shape his England future.
“It was probably the most fluent innings I’ve had to date,” Lees rated his second innings knock at Lord’s very highly. “Internally I was pleased in the manner I played and the obvious thing moving forward is that I have to take that and turn it into a substantial innings.”
But the problem occurs when after those short innings, other team-mates start to score truck-loads of runs and that’s where you as someone who has ended up between 20 to 31 in the last six innings, get the axe on your neck.
The all-important Trent Bridge Test knock
The second Test was vital for Lees given how Sam Robson or Sam Hain are scoring runs in the County Championship. And to make it worse, New Zealand piled up a massive 553. After toiling on the field for 145.3 overs, Lees coming to bat for 90-odd minutes showed his mental toughness.
Standing on middle and leg stump, Lees even after being patient in his innings didn’t miss out in scoring boundaries off loose balls; the drives or cut shots that he played summed up the tremendous timing he has. With a boundary being tucked towards the square leg region, Lees celebrated his maiden Test fifty but again fell on 67 in an attempt to drive a ball that was way outside his reach.
Lees was reborn in the second innings at Trent Bridge
England had a stiff job before themselves to seal the series in the second Test as they required 299 runs in 72 remaining overs on the last day. Lees who by then was identified with old schoolbook beginnings, cracked two boundaries in the first two balls of the chase before nailing another four on the fourth ball of the first over.
By the Lunch break, he sailed over to 30 with seven boundaries before eventually being dismissed on 44. The six and all those boundaries he nailed in the small innings just spelled out how the left-hander from Durham possesses the game for the occasion on hand; he can play those shots around the ground and can also see off time when the opponent gets under the skin.
England won the game eventually but with everyone scoring runs except his opening partner, Zak Crawley, Alex Lees needs to have one or two big knocks in the last Test and the one-off Test against India in the first week of July. With other batters scoring runs and knocking the doors big time, Lees has to pile up huge scores if he wants to retain his place for the three home Tests against South Africa at the end of the summer and then the historic tour to Pakistan in late autumn.