After the challenge of withstanding R Ashwin and Axar Patel on an Ahmedabad dustbowl, it will be back to a trial by seam and swing for Dan Lawrence next week, as Essex begin their defence of both the County Championship and the Bob Willis Trophy with a season-opening encounter against Worcestershire at Chelmsford.
But while Lawrence’s profile may have gone up several notches during a tough debut tour of Sri Lanka and India, the man himself says his appetite has merely been whetted by his experiences this winter.
And, having bookended the trip with hard-fought fifties in his first and last outings at Galle and Ahmedabad respectively, Lawrence believes he’s proved to himself, first and foremost, that he belongs at the highest level, and is hungry to get another bite of the action as soon as possible.
“It’s hard to know for sure, because it feels different when you are batting yourself to when you actually watch it back,” Lawrence said. “But I did actually [feel like I belonged]. I really enjoyed it. It’s something I always wanted to do, and I really relished the challenge all winter.
His debut came in the first Test of England’s winter, against Sri Lanka at Galle, where he was presented with his cap by his former Essex captain, James Foster, and immediately showed his mettle with a gritty innings of 73 in support of his England captain and double-centurion, Joe Root. Lawrence then held his nerve in the second innings, to seal an anxious run-chase in partnership with Jonny Bairstow, to complete a hugely composed first outing for England.
“It’s quite a big one for me, to get the monkey off the back and actually play a Test match is something I’ve always wanted to achieve,” he said. “I’ve had a little taste of it and hopefully I can carry on playing.
“It’s obviously completely different conditions, coming back from playing in Asia all winter, with the ball nibbling at Chelmsford in mid-April. But I’m really hoping I can get loads of runs on the board at the start of the year, help Essex win some more trophies, and push my case to play the first Test this summer.”
In the final analysis, Lawrence’s figures from his maiden England winter don’t especially stand out – 248 runs at 27.55 in five Tests and ten innings show promise rather than fulfilment. But, having been shunted around the order – as high as No.3 and as low as No.7 – to fit with England’s evolving plans on an arduous tour, he now knows, without much doubt, that there aren’t many harder places than Asia for a young English batsman to succeed.
“If I’m selected for England, I’ll bat anywhere, and I’ve said that before,” he said. “But I’ve accepted that I don’t think cricket can get more challenging than what I experienced in those Test matches in India and Sri Lanka.
“Playing in England, you don’t face a lot of quality spin, because it’s not really needed. So it’s lovely to be challenged against that and to be able to deal with the pressure, just knowing that if things do get really tough, that I’ve actually got a plan, and the sort of tempo and a mindset that hopefully can work at Test level.”
The next step for any young England player is often the hardest – second-season syndrome has afflicted many rising stars in the past. But after a two-week break at the end of the India tour, Lawrence was back in the nets at Chelmsford last week, and has thrown himself into Essex’s pre-season with a vigour that has reassured the senior batsmen around him that a big follow-up to his winter exploits is on the cards.
One man who knows better than anyone about such heightened expectations is Sir Alastair Cook, whose own breakthrough winter came in India in 2005-06, with a century on debut in Nagpur aged 21.
“He’s in a quite a hard spot because he’s so desperate to play for England, you can worry about all kinds of stuff which are totally out of your control,” Cook said. “Ultimately, he needs to make sure his focus is on the next ball. If he does that, which I’m sure he will, everything else will take care of itself.
“He’s in a good space with his game, coming back from India, and mentally he seems in a good spot too,” Cook added. “He’s hit probably the most balls out of any batsman coming back, and he’s been doing extra sessions too, all the hard graft which will only bode well for him.
“Just because he’s played for England, that doesn’t mean he’s guaranteed to score runs, it’s not as easy as that. There are some very good bowlers in county cricket that know what they’re doing, and he knows that too. But he looks in a good space, and that can only be a good thing for Essex. We’ve got a guy who’s desperate for higher honours, and knows that he needs to score runs to get there.”
The one thing that Lawrence can be sure of is that further success for Essex will earn the recognition he craves, given that the club is the pre-eminent force in county cricket at the moment – thanks to two County Championship titles in 2017 and 2019, and last season’s success in “The Bob” when Covid-19 forced a rejig of the season.
And Lawrence knows, from the manner in which the club has nurtured its young players in the past, that he’ll be given all the support he needs to take his next steps, both in his England development and in graduating to a more senior status within the county as well.
“We’ve got really good things going on at the club at the moment, with a brilliant mix of younger and older players, and a really good management and support staff,” Lawrence said. “We’ve got a formula that’s proven, and we know how to win a lot of games of cricket, so I’m really excited to get stuck in with the boys.
“It’s not only with me, but a lot of the older guys do try their utmost to help out any young players coming through,” he added. “With the atmosphere that we have at this club, and being a really close knit group, and a really honest group, it really allows young players to develop quicker than they would at other counties. They know where they stand with us and we really try our best to get around them.
“So if any young batter or bowler needs any help, it wouldn’t only be me, but I think everyone would be queuing up to help them, and I think that’s a big part of why we are so successful.”
Tom Westley, Lawrence’s captain and de facto house-mate, now that the pair are living in the same bubble, shares Cook’s belief in the progress of their young team-mate.
“He knows his game, he’s mature,” Westley said. “Even though he’s young, he has been around for a while. But he’s a stand-up guy and he’s an outstanding professional cricketer.
“It has been very refreshing, with him coming back. He’s not a guy who’s going to be complacent, he injects energy and positivity into the squad, and wants to get better himself – even if it’s a warm-up game, he wants to score hundreds. He wants to go to the indoor school to work on his own game, he’s a role model for younger cricketers on how they should go about their cricket, and I think he will slot in like normal.
“With Dan, I’ve always said it’s more a matter of when he’ll play for England, and when he will be successful, rather than if.
“He’s had a taste. And I hope, and think, he will be successful for England for a number of years. And if he is, that’s going to be good for Essex. He’s very level-headed, he knows how hard it can be, and that there will be ups and downs, but the one thing he has got is complete confidence in his ability.”
And already it seems that Lawrence’s game brain is in gear for the new season. He captained the side during their pre-season outing against Lancashire last week, and with a pair of exploratory visits to the middle he feels sufficiently grooved to take what’s coming in an extended run of early-season Championship fixtures.
“I got myself in trouble [in the past] with thinking too far ahead,” he said. “So now I’m really focused on taking it game by game and helping Essex win games of cricket. Whether that’s batting a long time or whether it’s the team needing me to score quick runs, it’s about making sure my process and training is right before each game and see where it leads me.”