The first ball Dan Lawrence faced in Test cricket was from Sri Lanka’s slow left-armer, Lasith Embuldinya. It was outside off stump, flatter and faster than the one before it, which had done for Jonny Bairstow. Lawrence sized it up, stepped back, and smacked it out to cover for an easy single. And that was the introductions done with, a brisk handshake before he settled down to the serious business of Test match cricket. Lawrence spanked his next ball, a full toss from Dilruwan Perera, away for four, followed it with a punch through the covers, a glance past square leg, and before you knew it he was already in double figures.
It all looked disarmingly easy. Here was a 23-year-old kid playing his very first Test innings, on a hot, humid day, on a turning pitch, against three good spinners, one of them, Perera, an old hand who was busy taking first-class wickets back when Lawrence was still crawling around on all fours. It should have been hard going, but somehow Lawrence took to it like a soft chair, as if all this was as comfortable and familiar to him as the nets back at Chingford, where his dad works as a groundsman, and he first learned to play.
Soon Sri Lanka’s captain Dinesh Chandimal brought his young leg-spinner, Wanindu Hasaranga into the attack. Hasaranga’s second ball was his googly, which is famously hard-to-pick. And Lawrence missed it, only just managed to get his bat down on it in the very split-second before it hit his back pad. Afterwards, he smiled, laughed as if the delivery were really a good joke told at his own expense, and then, unruffled, he settled again, stretched out and met the next delivery with a forthright forward defence, head out over his front foot, right up close to the pitch of the ball. The googly was as close as the bowlers came to beating him all morning.
There’s been a lot of talk about Lawrence’s stylishness, and his wristiness, the way he whips the bat around the crease like a French chef beating egg whites, and you could see some of that in one of the fours he hit off Hasaranga. The bowler floated a delivery up outside off and Lawrence reached out of his crease and crashed it, flat-batted, down the ground, forcing the bat through the shot with his bottom hand. But it was his footwork that was really striking, the way he was so quick, and decisive, in moving forward and back, into the crease and out. Sri Lanka’s bowlers never managed to pin him down by settling on a line and length. He didn’t really let them.
At the other end, Joe Root was putting on a little masterclass in how to play spin bowling, but Lawrence didn’t lose much in comparison. In fact, he outscored Root by 33 to 18 in their first 50 runs, the best of them a glorious six that he belted over mid-wicket off one knee. He knew it was good too, and held the pose as the ball sailed over the boundary rope. Lawrence says he grew up idolising AB de Villiers, but there was a touch (and just a touch) of Kevin Pietersen to the way he went about this innings, not just in the flourishes, but in the springy assertiveness of his movements at the crease, the surprisingly nimble footwork, and the warp and weft of his steel-wire wrists.
Lawrence’s talent has been clear since he took 161 off Surrey as a 17-year-old in his second match in the County Championship. But the way in which he demonstrated it here was a testament to the work England, and Essex, have done since. The pathway has worked, and he’s progressed through the under-19s, into the Lions, and then the Test setup. He spent a lot of last year in the Test bubble, first reserve waiting for a game, which must have helped put him at ease. It will have helped, too, that he knows the head coach, Chris Silverwood, so well from his days at Essex.
It was only after lunch that Lawrence started to flag, as if he was wilting a little in the afternoon heat. He slowed down, and that, perhaps, was why he grew a little rash. There was an edge that flew over gully when he was caught half-forward, and a toe-end that screwed-balled away over the slips after he skipped down the wicket and threw a wild drive. He dropped his bat in a panic as he turned to get back into his crease. Perera finally got him not long after, bowling around the wicket with the new ball, with a delivery that bounced more than he was prepared for and ricocheted away off his glove to short leg.
By then he’d made 73, the highest score in a debut Test innings for England since the last time England played at this ground, when Ben Foakes made 107. Which is a lesson in itself. Foakes has barely had a game since that tour ended (he played twice in the West Indies last January, and that’s it). And among all the other challenges ahead, Lawrence is going to face some keen competition for his place too, because the queue for spots in England’s batting lineup is going to be pretty congested when Ollie Pope, Ben Stokes and Rory Burns are all back in the reckoning. Still, there are worse problems to have, especially in a year when they’re due to play 17 Tests.