Mid-March, England were playing West Indies at Bridgetown and Alex Lees was batting. Lees had made four and six on his debut the previous week and here his partner, Zak Crawley, had just been caught behind for a duck. Kemar Roach was bowling. Roach tried a wide one outside off, inviting Lees to drive. He left it. Roach followed with two more in the same sort of place and again Lees refused to play at them. So Roach switched around the wicket, tried bowling straighter, twice, and Lees blocked both deliveries; Roach tried to slide one across him, tempt him again, with a final wide ball and Lees left it.
Lees ended up batting for 3hr 11min in that innings, and made 30 runs. A week later in Grenada he batted for 2hr 25min and made 31, and then another 3hr 41min on top of that for 31 more while the team collapsed to 120 all out around him. They ended up losing by 10 wickets. By the time he had finished his first Test tour, Lees had faced 460 balls, hit exactly 12 of them for four. It felt like an approximation of what he imagined, or had maybe even been told, was the right and proper way for a good Yorkshire‑born opener to play.
Lees used not to bat like that. When he was younger, his heroes were Marcus Trescothick and Matthew Hayden, “powerful left-handed batters who took the game to bowling attacks”. In his early years at Yorkshire he was so aggressive that his coach, Jason Gillespie, even gave him Hayden’s nickname, Haydos. In those days, Lees has said, he had one gear: “attack, attack, attack”. And it worked for him. By the time he was 21 he had been a key part of the team that won the County Championship, become the youngest man to score a double century for Yorkshire and had made his debut for England Lions. And then he started to fail.
Caution overcame 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 fell apart at Yorkshire. By the time he was finally picked in the rickety Test squad England sent to the West Indies, he had become so hidebound that he seemed scared to play those shots that used to come so easily to him. Now he finally had his chance, he was not going to blow it by doing something daft, like trying to cut the ball before June.
Brendon McCullum’s and Ben Stokes’s great trick seems to have been to persuade Lees to forget most of what he imagines he knows about the way he ought to play in Test cricket and get back to batting something more like the way he did when he first fell in love with the game. Jonny Bairstow and Joe Root have carried England’s batting into this new era but it is Lees, their old Yorkshire teammate, who best epitomises what is different about it. One got the first hint of the change in him at Lord’s in the first Test against New Zealand when, in the second innings, he punched his second ball from Tim Southee through cover for four.
Lees made only 20 that day. But it was conspicuous that Stokes singled him out for praise that evening, and said it was the best he had seen him play. At Trent Bridge Lees was better again. He rattled off 67 in the first innings, and 44 in the second, when he hit three fours off Southee in the very first over of the innings and set the tempo for another famous English fourth‑innings run-chase. India, though, are a different proposition. One could spend a decade on the county circuit and never come up against a bowler such as Jasprit Bumrah; in fact, Lees has done exactly that.
The lessons of 145 years of English Test 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 ought to do at the beginning of this fourth innings is try to survive the opening spell. See off the better bowlers, wait for the ball to get soft, make it easier for the men in the middle order. Whatever you do, lad, don’t let it be something daft. So third ball Lees steps out of his crease and slaps Shami through midwicket for four.
Between them, Lees and Crawley did see off India’s opening bowlers, just not in the way the phrase would lead one to expect. Bumrah ended up stepping back from the attack after his first four overs cost 22, Shami was pulled after his first five went for 21. Ravindra Jadeja came on first change and Lees charged his first ball and drove it for four through long-off, dropped to one knee and reverse swept him to third man, dropped to the other and slog swept him to midwicket. Mohammed Siraj came on as second change, Lees uppercutted him over the slips, then drilled him through the covers, to bring up his fifty. It took him 44 balls.