Alex Lees epitomizes what’s different with the English stick in the new era | England v India 2021
MIn the middle of March, England were playing West Indies in Bridgetown and Alex Lees was at bat. Lees had made a four and a six on his debut the previous week and here his partner, Zak Crawley, had just been caught late for a duck. Kemar Roach was bowling. Roach tried a wide one on the outside, inviting Lees to drive. He left it. Roach followed with two more in the same sort of place, and again Lees refused to play with them. So Roach reversed the wicket, tried to bowl straighter, twice, and Lees blocked both deliveries, Roach tried to slip one on him, attempt it again, with one last ball wide, and Lees left him.
Lees ended up battling for three hours and 11 minutes in that run and made 30 runs. A week later in Granada he batted for two hours and 25 minutes, and did 31, then another three hours and 41 minutes on top of that, for 31 more, while the team crumbled to 120 all around him. They ended up losing the match by 10 wickets. By the time he had completed his first Test round, Lees had faced 460 balls, hitting exactly 12 of them for four. It was like an approximation of what he imagined, or maybe even told, was the right way to play for a good Yorkshire-born fly-half.
Lees wasn’t used to punching like that. When he was younger, his heroes were Marcus Trescothick and Matthew Hayden; “powerful left-handed hitters who took the game to bowling attacks”. In his early years at Yorkshire, he was so aggressive that his trainer, Jason Gillespie, even gave him Hayden’s nickname, Haydos. At that time, Lees said he only had one gear: “attack, attack, attack”. And it worked for him. By the age of 21 he had been a key part of the team that won the County Championship, became the youngest man to score a double century for Yorkshire and made his debut for the Lions of England. And then it started to fail.
Caution defeated Lees the same way conservatism does a middle-aged liberal. And for similar reasons, too. He had more to lose. Lees had to rebuild his career at Durham after his form plummeted at Yorkshire. By the time he was finally chosen in the rickety Test squad that England sent to the West Indies, he had become so stubborn that he seemed afraid to play those moves that came so easily to him. Now that he finally had his chance, he wasn’t going to waste it by doing something stupid, like trying to cut the ball before June.
Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes’ big trick seems to have been to persuade Lees to forget most of what he imagines he knows about how he should play Test cricket and go back to hitting something more like he does. did when he first fell in love with the game. Jonny Bairstow and Joe Root have carried the England baton into this new era, but it’s their former Yorkshire team-mate Lees who best embodies what’s different at this subject. You had the first hint of the change in him at Lord’s in the first Test against New Zealand when, in the second innings, he hit his second ball from Tim Southee from cover for four.
He only made 20 that day. But it was obvious Stokes singled him out for his praise that night and said it was the best he had seen him play. At Trent Bridge, Lees was even better. He landed 67 in the first set and 44 in the second, when he hit three fours against Southee in the very first set and set the tempo for another famous English chase in the fourth set. India, however, is a different proposition. You could spend a decade on the county circuit and never meet a bowler like Jasprit Bumrah; In fact. Lees did just that.
The lessons of 145 years of England Test match batting, passed down from Jack Hobbs to Herbert Sutcliffe to Leonard Hutton to Geoffrey Boycott to Graham Gooch to Mike Atherton to Alastair Cook, dictate that what Lees must do at the start of this fourth inning is try to survive the opening spell. Watch the best bowlers, wait for the ball to get soft, make it easy for the middle order men. Whatever you do, boy, don’t let it be something stupid. So third ball Lees comes out of his crease and slaps Shami across the midwicket for four.
Between them, Lees and Crawley saw India’s opening bowlers, but not in the way the sentence would lead you to expect. Bumrah ended up pulling out of the attack after his first four overs went for 22, Shami was pulled out after his first five went for 21. Ravindra Jadeja came on the first substitution, and Lees charged in his first ball and drove it for four long, fell to one knee and reverse swept it to the third man, fell to the other and the job swept it to the midwicket. Mohammed Siraj came on as the second change, Lees uppercut him over the slides, then drilled him through the covers, to get his fifty up. It took him 44 bullets.