On Sky’s commentary, Mark Butcher summed it up as Alex Lees walked from the field, thunder on his face.
“What a delivery. What a start. But a man who sometimes goes a little bit under the radar because of the travails of the man at the other end, but Alex Lees is under the pump, too”.
The man at the other end is, of course, Zak Crawley. It is a measure of Crawley’s struggles, and the wider conversation about England’s loyalty to him, that his reaching stumps on Thursday night, for 17 off 77 balls, felt a mini-triumph. Crawley did a good job for his team at an awkward moment, 44 for three, but the acclaim coming his way would have quietened a touch if he proves unable to make it count today.
Butcher was right. The ball from Lungi Ngidi that kissed Lees’s outside edge in the second over of England’s response to South Africa’s 151 was a beauty, just moving enough off the seam. But Lees was furious because he knows the lot of the Test opener is to receive good balls, and have to find a way to survive them.
Instead, his bat was dangling, well away from his body. It was a limp and loose stroke that had little upside; the sort of dismissal, you sense, that will frustrate England’s hierarchy more than Lees’s wicket on the first morning at Lord’s, when he had a huge drive.
Butcher was also right that, for all Crawley’s struggles, Lees’s summer is souring a touch, too. There have been excellent moments, such as in the chases at Trent Bridge and Edgbaston, when his bat has appeared as wide as a railway sleeper while he hunted tone-setting boundaries.
England have revived the nickname Haydos, in honour of another meaty opener, Matthew Hayden, who was among Lees’s heroes growing up, and he can look powerful and intimidating at the crease. There is no single flaw that keeps leading to his dismissal and there has been some misfortune, such as when Joe Root ran him out at Edgbaston.
But Lees has single figure scores in his last four first innings and has beaten Crawley to getting out each time. Into his ninth Test, his average is 23.58, worse than Crawley’s overall and only marginally better than his partner’s average when opening, which is 22.74.
The Ben Stokes-Brendon McCullum axis inherited Lees, who did just enough on the tour of the Caribbean to earn retention in the new era. They like him, too. He is a resilient character who fits well into this setup, and is regarded by some as being a future leader. As we have seen with Crawley, England are big on backing, and they have been regular and specific with praise for Lees.
Rightly or wrongly, the selection theory is this: by giving a player one, perhaps even two, more game(s), they must dig deep when really desperate to show their true ability. If they fail at that stage, management can move on satisfied there is nothing left.
In turn, those outside the team, such as recent Lions centurions Harry Brook and Ben Duckett, will see the loyalty given to the incumbents and recognise that, when their turn comes, they will receive the same degree of faith.
That seems particularly pertinent for someone such as Duckett, who was picked as an in-form 21-year-old in desperately difficult decisions, then discarded. He is one of 19 men to open the batting since Andrew Strauss retired a decade ago.
The 18 new openers since Strauss (Alastair Cook was already in situ, and a rather different case) received, on average, exactly 10 Tests each. That will be where Lees finds himself at the end of the final Test at the Kia Oval.
McCullum has spent his first summer in charge observing and forming opinions on players and staff, and the project enters a new chapter in his first winter. Lees is likely to receive the faith but just like Crawley a score — ideally in the first innings at the Oval — is required to be certain of it.