Could it be possible to be the nicest man on planet earth, yet be the most hated? Ask Joe Burns, he’ll tell you.
21 months ago Joe Burns saved Australia’s blushes. Five Tests into the home summer of 2018/19, the Aussies did not have a single centurion all summer and were at the risk of finishing an entire summer without having a single batsman pass three digits. It would be then that an unlikely hero in the form of Burns would put a smile in the faces of the Australian supporters, who were living through arguably the lowest, if not darkest, phase in the country’s cricketing history.
Playing his first series in over a year, in what was his first ‘proper’ gig in nearly 30 months, Burns would strike a supreme and authoritative 180 versus the touring Lankans to restore the country’s cricketing dignity which, by then, was non-existent. It was one of the rare occasions when Burns made the front-page of the Australian newspapers, not overshadowed by his partner-in-crime David Warner or his ex-skipper Steve Smith.
A year and a half later, Burns has now yet again found himself as the central figure of media talks - except now, people are calling for his head; people want him gone. Burns’ place, arguably, in any other country would have been safe and secure, but not in Australia. For the Australian fans and national selectors alike, the Sheffield Shield is sacred. And so, understandably, Burns’ average of 11.40 after five gigs has not inspired an iota of confidence. But there is every reason to believe that this whole fiasco has less to do with Burns and more to do with the man whom they want to take the Queenslander’s place, Will Pucovski.
Now 22, Pucovski has been touted to be Australia’s next big thing for close to three years - way longer than Cameron Green, at least - and all that has stood between him and a Baggy Green has been his own physical and mental wellbeing. Yet even Pucovski’s most ardent fan wouldn’t have expected the youngster to slam the door open like he has: 495 runs in 3 innings @ 247.50, with two double centuries. It is the kind of run-scoring prowess that has seen the entirety of the Australian public rally behind the youngster and demand the selectors to let him open the batting alongside Warner on December 17 in Adelaide. And with him now being named in the squad, a maiden Baggy Green Cap is not far away.
Yet as coach Justin Langer has suggested, Pucovski might have to wait - for a couple of more Tests, at least.
“...I've also been consistent with the messaging that last summer we loved the combination of Joe Burns and David Warner, they have a real synergy, so at this point I'd say that will remain the same. But what Will's doing, what Cameron Green has done, is making a real statement through sheer weight of runs and that's always been a strong foundation for the strength of Australian cricket,” Langer said, hinting that Burns might open the batting come the first Test.
Joe Burns is by no means indispensable, and his gloomy Shield form has rightfully raised doubts over his position, but what he has done for the national side, particularly as an opener in Australia, simply cannot and should not be ignored. In 14 Tests as an opener in Australia, Burns averages close to 40, has struck 3 tons - could and should have been 4; he was dismissed on 97 in Brisbane last year - and is only one of six Aussie batsmen to have accumulated 1000 or more runs as an opener since the start of 2007. He has, at least in Australia, rarely tended to have more than a couple of failures in a row despite consistently finding himself in and out of the side since his debut way back in 2014.
From a broader perspective, to understand Burns’ value to the side, as Langer noted, it is imperative to consider his partnership up top with David Warner. Burns and Warner average 50.55 as an opening pair and have strung together 6 hundred-run partnerships. This number increases to 64.15 at home, where, batting together, they’ve scored a remarkable 1283 runs in just 20 innings, averaging a hundred-run stand every 3.33 innings. Since the start of 2005, no other Australian opening pair that has batted together at least 15 times has been more prolific; Burns and Warner have put together at least three-more hundred-run stands in Australia than any other opening pair in the past 15 years, including Hayden-Langer, Katich-Watson and Warner-Rogers.
Chief selector Trevor Horns remarked that the selectors will seek the opinion of Warner as to who he wants to open with and with indomitable figures like these, chances are the southpaw’s choice this time around would be Burns. After all, it was his partnership with the Queenslander up the order which was the cornerstone of Australia’s clean sweep in the Summer of 2019/20. Together, himself and Burns averaged 65.37 across the five Tests last summer, compared to the opening stands of New Zealand and Pakistan which stood at a deplorable 22.16 and 23.25 respectively. The duo, as the number’s suggest, have indestructible chemistry, due to which they thrive in each other’s presence.
To reduce Burns’ utility to the side to just being ‘a good partner for Warner’ will also be harsh. The right-hander, last year, averaged 44.66 with the bat and scored more runs than everyone but Warner and Labuschagne during the summer, granted he did get more opportunities compared to the other batters. He might not quite have capitalized on his chances, but he contributed no less than a Wade or a Head or a Smith to the 5-0 summer sweep which saw Australia reach the top of the Test rankings.
Should Burns get axed based on his Shield form, it won’t be a first: three summers ago, in an eerily similar scenario, incumbent Matt Renshaw, owing to a rotten run in the Shield, was unceremoniously axed prior to the Ashes to accommodate Cameron Bancroft, who’d notched up daddy hundreds and double-tons in the four-day games that preceded the Tests. There the selectors’ punt failed, as apart from Bancroft looking out of his depth in international cricket, Renshaw’s confidence also took a fatal hit, post which he never recovered and picked himself up. The rut Burns finds himself in, currently, is nowhere near as sustained or scathing as that of Renshaw, but Pucovski is banging the door far more vehemently than Bancroft ever did.
It now seems increasingly evident that the Australia A vs India showdown prior to the Tests will all but decide who will take to the field alongside Warner come the 17th of December. In all likelihood, Burns and Pucovski will be opening the batting together in the warm-up game in what will be a direct H2H battle for a spot in the XI in the Tests. This concept is not something new, either, as prior to the 2019 Ashes, Bancroft was picked as the opener based on his showing in the intra-squad warm-up game that preceded the Edgbaston Test - fair to say it did not end too well for the side.
Ultimately, the decision between Burns and Pucovski - or even Green and Head/Wade, for that matter - will come down to how much the coach, captain and the selectors value a ‘winning combination’ and how much they are willing to back the players who’ve played significant hands in getting the side to where it is today. What will be a bigger injustice: to dump Burns on the back of five failures after 21 Tests of relative success, or to overlook Pucovski after two double-tons in three digs as an opener?
“We went through a period when there were lots of ins and outs, and in my view we should back the guys in there. That can change, but it's a pretty strong philosophy to stick to."
Going by the words of Langer, it is the former, and rightfully so.