With his fluent 77 not out on the third day of England’s first Test against South Africa, Rory Burns gave his side a slim chance of breaking the record for their highest Test run chase for the second time in 2019, with England needing a further 255 runs of their 376-run target.
The first occasion came unforgettably at Headingley in this summer’s Ashes, when Ben Stokes’ 135 not out sealed one of the greatest ever Test victories. This would also be the highest chase by any team against South Africa, with the previous largest the 352 chased by Sri Lanka at Colombo in 2006.
Whatever happens, Burns has once again stated his credentials as an opening batsman, and with his seventh fifty-plus score in 2019, joins an elite club of England openers. Geoffrey Boycott and John Edrich never made more than seven fifty-plus scores from the top of the order in a calendar year, while the only others to better Burns’ seven fifty-plus scores in a single year are Sir Alastair Cook, Graham Gooch, Michael Atherton, Len Hutton, Dennis Amiss, Marcus Trescothick, Michael Vaughan, and Andrew Strauss, all regarded as greats of English cricket.
Should Burns add the 23 runs he needs to reach his third Test hundred, he will become just the fifth English opener to make three or more Test hundreds this century, joining Cook, Trescothick, Vaughan, and Strauss.
Burns has faced 1845 balls and scored 817 runs in 2019, each the best among openers from all countries, though he has also played the most games. Mayank Agarwal (754 runs and 1277 balls faced) is closest in both respects, though Tom Latham (593 runs) could yet theoretically catch him on one front.
There were also some small signs of encouragement for Burns’ opening partner Dom Sibley, who made 29 off 90 balls, the highest score of his Test career so far. Their 92-run partnership was England’s highest opening stand for three years, beating the 84 runs put on by Burns and Keaton Jennings in England’s first Test in the West Indies. However, their failure to make it past three figures means England will end 2019 having gone three full calendar years since their last century opening stand, in the fifth Test against India in 2016.