Alex Lees on being dropped by England, and how he plans to win his Test place back

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For many, the decision to sideline Alex Lees for the tour of Pakistan and keep the faith with Zak Crawley was a surprise.

The opening pair had a similar summer of 2022, although Lees overshadowed it on every metric: runs, averages, half-centuries and double-figure scores. Except, ultimately, on the talent ceiling. The three wise men in the England set-up – Rob Key, Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes – have long spoken of Crawley’s incredible ability, and when he finished the English season with 69 not out at the Kia Oval, the Test Ended the summer with one. The series-clinching victory over South Africa made it easy to choose between the two.

Crawley scored a century in Rawalpindi, his first innings of the Pakistan tour which would eventually see him score 235 for some much-needed currency going into 2023. Lees, meanwhile, was at home with his wife and two children, preparing for a Christmas of family, reflection and disorganization.

“I’m sure I wasn’t amazing for a couple of weeks,” Lees says, recalling her mood at certain times in November and December. “But those things [family] Always keep you grounded and give you a great outlook on life. And what can you do?”

By his own admission, his axing was greeted with dismay. “I think it’s human nature. If someone has news they’re not particularly happy about, if you’re in sports or life, you have a natural distaste for your mouth.” But it was no bolt out of the blue.

“I wasn’t a dead proof to go to Pakistan. I’m not naive with it. My runs probably didn’t reflect some of the impact I had in some games. Some run-chases, especially.

“Not that it wasn’t definitely on my radar that it wasn’t a possibility. They’ve given us some encouraging support throughout the summer. But unfortunately, that’s part of the game. There’s always going to be tough decisions because, For anybody, this is not good news.”

There was a tinge of bad news on the horizon when Lee failed to make the central contract list. His removal was confirmed through a call from the Director of Men’s Cricket, and McCullum. Amidst the praise was a clear message: spend time freshening up and then developing your game in line with the Test team’s progress. Being punchier, overbearing and confident. something he has already started working on with Durham, and will hope to extend to the England Lions in Sri Lanka next month.

“For me, I just have to stay in my rhythm and keep trying to grow as a player. And hopefully, if I can go back and put in some good performances…” Doing some internal math Lees stop before. “It may not be necessary this year but in the next few years as I am still quite young, hopefully I can be given another chance at some point.”

There are a few things that stick out here. Lees at first recognizes the man who has replaced him, Ben Duckett, will be a longtime supporter. Not only because of the impressive return to Test cricket this winter but also because loyalty is a key principle under Stokes. Any return for Lees would take some time, as his replacement would be granted the same luxury of continuity as he was.

The second, more important, part might be “staying in my lane”. There is somewhat of a misconception regarding The Word According to Baz and Ben: that they are asking players to keep the bat on the wild side. While the shift has been towards being more assertive in the middle, the onus is on the player to find *their* best way to do so.

Looking ahead to the summer of 2022, there were moments when Lees successfully accessed this side of herself. Specifically, fourth innings chases against New Zealand at Trent Bridge and against India at Edgbaston. Scores of 44 and 56 set the tone for successful chases of 299 and 378 respectively. Both innings earned praise from the captain, coach and those who had the distinction of watching England at home for laying the foundation for those successes.

This was in stark contrast to the first three of Lees’ 10 Test caps in the Caribbean. As England transition from Chris Silverwood’s tenure following a 4-0 Ashes defeat, the unknowns of the summer meant a holding pattern in March. Stasis followed with a 1–0 series loss to the West Indies. Lees scored only 126 runs in six innings at an impressive strike rate of 27.39. He explains that it was an era in which he was just trying to fit in.

“I don’t see myself as a limited player,” he says, reflecting on the early knock. “I think it was obviously a conscious decision: you’re just trying to buy into whatever the team’s philosophy is. When I made my debut in the West Indies we got behind a regime where a Big importance was the first innings, no matter how slow it was or how long it took to get there, so I think on every tour I was trying to play according to the nature of the team.

“But it’s not like I’m a one-set style of player. I was really trying to bring the vision of the captain and the coach through action.”

As such, despite the struggles of the summer, Lees didn’t feel like he was trying to do anything different for her. If anything, the 29-year-old was missing the approach he used in his earlier years at Yorkshire, when he enjoyed success against both the red and white ball with a game that suited both. He received the nickname “Haydos” from then Yorkshire coach Jason Gillespie after Australian left-handed batsman Matthew Hayden, who was an early inspiration for Lees as a fellow southpaw. The changes since then have been as much about age as changes in conditions and surfaces within county cricket.

“I think in terms of style of play it’s something I haven’t played for a while,” he says, “just because the wickets haven’t been as good in county cricket over the years. So it’s Not something I’ve been used to in the recent past.

“But I think early in my career I was very comfortable and I probably played that way, especially when I started playing in Yorkshire because over the years the pace of the wickets was a bit higher and they had a lot of carry. So I think naturally, I didn’t feel too bad. I just got to tap into a different part of my career and I loved it.

The factor that will help in any future case Lees puts forward to add to his Test cap is the degree to which he has bought into the project. Teammates regarded him as an engaging presence in the dressing-room, friendly and unwilling to back down even during tense periods. The best example of that last aspect came in the only Test with India when he was ready to hit back at Virat Kohli as the pair were walking off the field at tea on day four. At stumps that day, he played down the incident as a big joke: “He’s obviously a very competitive person, and I’m quite headstrong too. My wife says so.” Nevertheless, by standing up to such a decorated opponent Lees was committed to showing he was committed to the cause and developing a sense of belonging.

Naturally, this makes their current situation a little harder to bear. Plus, he looks set to return as a more accomplished player. Returning to training with Durham in late 2022, he heads into the Lions’ two “Tests” against Sri Lanka A knowing what he needs to do, and how he needs to do it.

“I guess I enjoyed being in that environment, especially playing in a successful side in the summer,” he says. “It was fantastic. I think my reflection on playing those games, I played quite competently but just lacked that big score which is obviously the difference. As a top-order batsman, you’re in the middle —are averaging in the mid-twenties to mid-forties. For summer, in short, that’s what your test summer is built around.

“My biggest reflection is disappointing, putting myself in good shape all summer and I didn’t capitalize on it. I would love to experience that atmosphere again and I think if I do, this summer will be my best.” The big learning is that I need to score a big century.

“I’ve had the difference between an average summer and an extraordinary summer and being out. I’m totally focused on getting back.”

Vithusan Anthraja is Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo

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