Ton up: Mind over matter takes Burns to finest century

On the eve of his 100th Sheffield Shield match, the Queensland opener and three-time title winner reveals how he has endured in such a competitive, pressure-filled environment

In his downtime, Joe Burns likes to lay on the lower-level loungeroom floor of his sprawling Brisbane home, stretch, and watch the NBA. Just beyond that white-tiled room, placed above a courtyard on the north side of the house, sits a basketball ring and backboard. Strewn across the pavers are a couple of well-worn basketballs.

Those things considered, as he readies himself to become the 13th Queenslander to play 100 Sheffield Shield matches, it is unsurprising Burns borrows from famed Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr when discussing how cricket has changed during his time in it. 

"He said something like, 'Everything else in the world evolves except for sport – that just seems to keep going backwards, if you ask players from previous areas'," Burns tells, referring to the inimitable Kerr's tongue-in-cheek response to suggestions his championship-winning side could never touch the NBA dynasties of yore.

"But I've got no drama saying the game now is way better than it was in 2010 (when Burns made his List A debut).

"The players are so much better now than when I started, and I know that in 10 years' time, they'll be way better than I ever was, and the game just keeps going from strength to strength.

"I'm amazed at the skills these guys have now. I watch our Under-19 team, and they've got all these shots that I'd never even thought of practising when I was their age."

Image Id: FF147E47C0074D5483BD7F66CAE00AD6 Image Caption: Burns, then 22, batting for Queensland in 2011 // Getty

Truth is, at their age, Burns wasn't even sure he was going to be a cricketer. But 14 years on, as he looks back across his career and wonders where the time has gone, he has put himself firmly in the game's lore in this country.

* * *

To mark the century of matches, Burns will be presented with a fresh baggy maroon, which is a good thing, because his current cap is bordering on unwearable. He dons it now for the photoshoot to accompany this story. It is sweat stained, discoloured, and tattered, a thick strip of maroon material completely ripped from its peak. It is a cap that tells a story of its own.

Burns' attention turns to a list on a laptop. He scans the names above him, a bevy of Bulls batting brilliance stretching back 70 years: Love, Maher, Law, Trimble, Hayden, Burge, Border.

Before the summer is out, he will likely leapfrog Allan Border into seventh place on Queensland's all-time Shield run-scoring list, while a decent run of form will also see him push past 7,000 in the competition.

Image Id: DB611F66C4904497829F300A383D7803 Image Caption: Burns in his baggy maroon, then in slightly better shape, in 2019 // Getty

They are numbers that carry a historic weight, and Burns knows he is safe enough to place more significance in those than the ones he deals with daily, which he learned long ago not to trust or place much stock in at all.

"As I got older, I tried to remove the emotion around the runs you make, and I tried to really knuckle down on my preparation," says the 33-year-old, who will reach his hundred matches when Queensland take on South Australia in Adelaide from Sunday.

"I wouldn't have been able to play for as long as I have if I tied emotion to how many runs I was making; the game is just too hard.

"So I got to a point where I would judge how I was batting on the processes. And then, to an extent, the runs I made were uncontrollable, because there were so many variables.

"Rather than getting frustrated if I'd made a duck – there'd be times where I'd miss out but I knew I was batting well, and I'd get down in the dumps, and I'd train more – after a few years, I realised you've got to judge yourself over an extended set of time. And I just got good at taking the emotion out of performance."

It was a mental technique Burns picked up in his mid-20s, and it proved particularly valuable as his career unfolded given his existence for much of it as an in-again, out-again batter in Australia's Test squad. Those players, Burns knows, have their every move forensically scrutinised.

Never more was that the case for the Queenslander than during the 2020-21 summer, when as Test opener he made three single-figure scores out of four against India and was dropped for the back half of the series.

Image Id: 6409C5C2A78F47CF9F52610911A1B4F7 Image Caption: Burns is dismissed by India’s Jasprit Bumrah in the 2020 Boxing Day Test // Getty

Heavily criticised in the media and axed for the umpteenth time in his international career, Burns was able to switch off from the drama and focus on his next challenge, as he had trained himself to do.

When the Shield season returned, Queensland headed to Hobart to take on Tasmania. Burns, playing his first first-class innings since the India series, hit 171 out of 275 in a remarkable lone hand that kept the Bulls in a match they went on to win by three wickets.

It was his 19th first-class hundred, and perhaps his finest for Queensland (he rates his 170 against New Zealand in Christchurch as his best Test knock), while it also proved decisive in steering the Bulls to a home Shield final, which they ultimately won against New South Wales.

Brilliant Burns returns to form with marathon 171

"I'd had a rough summer, but because I never judged myself on the output of runs, I don't think I ever felt the pressure that other people maybe assumed I would be feeling," he says.

"I know there were a lot of pundits with a lot of different commentary, but I never felt any of it."

* * *

He finds it hard to split the three Shield final wins he has been a part of, remembering them fondly for different reasons. Chris Hartley's hundred in the 2011-12 decider stands out as a special memory, but so too do the looks on the faces of a young group tasting success for the first time in 2017-18. Moreover, Burns explains, "it's the shared bonds that you have going forward after those moments".

"I can still ring up a Luke Feldman, or Cameron Boyce," he says. "Obviously, there are special players that you played with, or special innings that contributed to the team's success, but it's the bonds that you make that unites you in time."

And while he is always willing to find a place for nostalgia, in the middle of his 13th season Burns is making other phone calls too, as he continues to place a premium on diligent preparation.

"I love debriefing, and planning with my teammates," he says. "Before Shield games, I'll ring up Marnus (Labuschagne) or Jimmy (Peirson) and talk to them about what their plans are, what my plans are."

Image Id: 0F3FC7BE006F4F5D856EBA42379B3FE9 Image Caption: Burns with Queensland teammate Marnus Labuschagne // Getty

It is a habit he has made throughout his career; picking up tips and snippets of wisdom from coaches, teammates and opponents alike, and storing them in the back of his mind for the appropriate moment. From his first state batting coach, Justin Sternes, to Test teammates (and state rivals) Chris Rogers, Adam Voges and Peter Handscomb, Burns has shrewdly gathered intel about conditions or technique and much else in between.

He knows his practices haven't always equated to mountains of runs but that fact simply returns him to his previous point; the game is too challenging to tie his emotions exclusively to that currency. Instead, he finds value in other means, a fact he is trying to communicate to the young players alongside him.

"The hardest thing is getting to the Bulls' dinner every year, and there's always one or two guys that are off contract," he says. "It's sad when guys say they would've done things differently, or they thought they had more time, or they wish they'd committed more.

"I don't want to see a young guy get delisted not having given it his all, and that's what I mean about – to an extent – the runs don't matter, the wins don't matter.

"It's (about) when you're finished, knowing you can sit back and go, 'Gee, I tried my absolute best to be the best player I could be, and if it wasn't good enough, it wasn't good enough'.

"Don't sit there and regret for the rest of your life that you should've done something different, or you wish you'd committed five per cent more.

Burns drags Bulls back into contest with blistering 135

"That's my message to guys now: just give it everything you've got. If it doesn't work out, trust me, you can be satisfied if you've done that.

"I mean, I wish I could make a Test hundred every single day. The reality is that's not going to happen, but I get as much satisfaction from saying to myself, 'I tried my absolute best to be the best possible player I could be'.

"And when it's done, I'll move on to something else in life … but while the opportunity is here, I'll be trying to grasp it."

* * *

The finish line hasn't arrived just yet. Burns says the fire in the belly remains, and the enjoyment continues. Each year he plays he genuinely feels as though Queensland have a squad capable of winning the Shield. He sees it again now, and the dream of a fourth title burns bright.

Such success would see him nudging towards Queensland's legends, a few of whom remain part of the Bulls set-up (head coach Wade Seccombe and physio Martin Love, who each won five Shield titles, and bowling coach Andy Bichel, who won four), while other regular faces at Allan Border Field – Fire coach Ashley Noffke, board member Ian Healy, chairman Chris Simpson, partnership and sales manager Adam Dale, and selection chair Chris Hartley – are personifications of a glorious recent past.

Image Id: ADB0C0822BCC48DD85D34A74DAAE4390 Image Caption: Burns averages over 40 in Shield cricket // Getty

Burns remembers how it felt arriving in that world as a young man.

"It was very surreal coming into the Queensland cricket team," he says. "It was a very esteemed team, given the recent history – growing up, the team was very successful.

"Now you see these past players there, and they want to stay connected to the team because the culture was so good when they played. They created their own memories and bonds with people, and they're still great mates.

"That's been passed on to the current team. It's just a great culture to be a part of."

As the most capped Queenslander in the group, Burns knows the responsibility now falls on him to maintain that. And as another century arrives, he considers that role as important as any other.