Dan Lawrence itching for Lions opportunity after summer on the Test sidelines

A lot can happen in the space of eight months. England’s men, for instance, now have a successful Test team. One thriving under exciting new leadership, with established stars thriving bolstered by a younger generation urged to express themselves. The sense of fun has been palpable on both sides of the boundary.

The reaction from cricketers outside the dressing-room has been positive. Whether fuelled by FOMO or a sense they missed out on caps because of how head coach Brendon McCullum and Test skipper Ben Stokes unequivocally backed certain players last summer, an emerging theme throughout the county season was of players posting strong numbers and not being shy in expressing a desire to be part of it all.

In a few weeks, many of them will get the chance to state their case. Ahead of England’s three-Test tour of Pakistan, the main squad and a Lions squad with 11 uncapped players will join forces for a training camp in the UAE, culminating in a three-day match among themselves at the Zayed Cricket Complex in Abu Dhabi.

Dan Lawrence will be one of the more seasoned members of the secondary group, with arguably the most to prove. Eight months ago, the Essex batter was a Test cricketer, playing all three matches on the tour of the Caribbean. While not a successful one for England, who were beaten 1-0 by West Indies, Lawrence seemed to emerge with credit as the team’s third-highest run-scorer behind Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow, with 197 at an average of 32.83. A fourth score above fifty came in the penultimate match of the Caribbean tour, with 91 and 41 in Bridgetown. Contained within 11 Tests up to that point was an understanding the pugnacious 25-year-old was being groomed for a middle-order spot.

Alas, he was not part of the first squad under Stokes against New Zealand, which became a recurring theme. Worst still, his domestic form dropped off a cliff, with just 420 runs from 19 first class innings and a single century. His dip was exacerbated by two untimely hamstring injuries.

“It wasn’t the nicest,” Lawrence says of a summer spent on the outside looking in while coping with his own. “The most important thing to me is trying to play Test cricket for England. Having a small taste for it and being around the group for a couple of years, it made even harder to leave the group. Because it’s a brilliant environment and I loved every minute of it. And it looks so exciting at the moment with Brendon in charge and Stokesy as captain – it looks like the kind of brand of cricket I’d really enjoy playing and it does look like great fun.

“Honestly, it was a tough watch a couple of times at the start, being desperate to being involved. But as the summer went on you kind of process it a bit better and come to a realisation you’ve just got to churn out the runs and get in that way.”

While a Lions call-up might be regarded as a consolation prize for someone who was in and amongst it not long ago, Lawrence appreciates that this opportunity to restate his worth in front of the people that matter is proof that he hasn’t been forgotten.

“If I was to go back a few months I’d have been desperate to be on the actual Test tour,” Lawrence admits. “But I had a frustrating summer with firstly injuries and then not being able to get on the run of scores to put my name in the hat. This winter is all about, again, working as hard as I can and doing everything I can to put some numbers on paper and get back in the Test squad.

“I walked away fairly happy with how it went,” he says of that last experience with the main group. “I had two decent Tests and then didn’t score any in the last Test, but I definitely felt like I was getting to grips with the sort of demands at international level.”

Following that initial snub, Lawrence began reaching for a return. “I think there might have been an element of myself being too desperate to get back in and not focussing on what was ahead of me. And then perhaps that was a slight negative in the middle to the end of the season. The hardest thing to square was being one of the last ones in under Joe Root’s stewardship and the first one out for Stokes’.

Conversations with the new skipper throughout the summer allayed fears that he had done anything wrong, but reinforced what he had to do right. Stokes has long been an admirer of Lawrence’s chutzpah and there is little doubt that at his best, his nous, steadfast confidence and swashbuckling wrists fit the bill for how England are approaching Test cricket. This trait was clear in his 97 when the Lions beat the touring South Africans in Canterbury in August.

That his profile fits the bill is evident by those of his generation who are being given room to find their way. Ollie Pope (24) is the number three, Zak Crawley (aged 24) is being persisted with up top, Harry Brook (23) is set for five matches at No.6 due to Jonny Bairstow’s untimely ankle injury, across this Pakistan tour and New Zealand next February, while Will Jacks (23) has received a maiden call-up this winter. Lawrence is phlegmatic when gauging where he sits in the pecking order at the moment,

“I’ve had chats with Stokesy throughout the summer. The numbers four, five, six that they went with, with Rooty, Jonny and Stokesy, I’m fully aware that’s going to be a really hard place to get in. I fully understood that.

“Then you’ve got people like Brooky who averaged over 100 in the Championship, and you have to reward that. So I completely understood why I went out and it was just disappointing getting a taste for it and not being part of the squad.”

“But looking back, No.3 was available and Popey has taken his chance brilliantly, played really well this summer. And then all three of those were outstanding. By no means am I saying I should have played, it was just disappointing getting a taste for it and then not being involved. I suppose when you do get left out, it becomes more motivating to get back in. Then whenever someone gets injured or someone loses form, hopefully I can be ready to jump right back in.”

As for where he might slot in with a packed middle order, Lawrence, well, doesn’t mind, which tallies with the fact he has batted from three to seven in his 21 Test innings to date. And he is open to broadening that resume by putting himself forward as an opener. Though he has only done it five times for Essex – all in the 2015 season – he was the designated spare opener in the Caribbean.

“I’ve said it before – if England ask me to bat number nine, I’ll bat number nine for them. I would literally bat anywhere if they said that’s where you need to bat to get in. If that’s my best way in, I’d definitely give it a crack. Or number three, or I’d stay at four. I haven’t had this chat with anyone yet. Or I could stay at four and try and bang out the runs and if a slot comes up in the top three then hopefully I’d have the game to be able to cope with that.

“It’s something I’ve got to have a think about. We’ve got a long time until the English summer begins or the Lions games begins, so there is time to definitely have a think about it. But ultimately if, wherever I bat, I can bang out the runs, then hopefully in time there can be a slot available for me.”

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

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