Surrey captain Burns, dropped as England’s Test opener following poor returns during the heavy Ashes series defeat in Australia last winter, had also made only 119 runs from six previous championship innings this season.
But here he held Surrey’s first innings together impressively after Luke Procter had removed Hashim Amla and Will Jacks in successive balls soon after lunch.
Burns went to two significant milestones during his innings – 11,000 runs in all first-class cricket and 9,000 in first-class matches for Surrey – and was joined by Sam Curran in the day’s defining partnership of 95 for the fifth wicket.
Curran finished 71 not out, a classy innings featuring some beautiful offside strokes, but both Burns and Colin de Grandhomme were dismissed by Ben Sanderson in the final hour to give Northants a late boost on a day when their captain, Ricardo Vasconcelos, was off the field for all but the opening hour after feeling unwell.
Procter had earlier seen Ryan Patel spoil a promising innings of 19 against the new ball by hitting to cover, where Simon Kerrigan took a smart catch above his head.
Amla was bowled for 21, an absolute beauty from the medium-pacer clipping the top of the former South Africa Test great’s off stump, and Jacks was leg-before to the next delivery – the last ball of Procter’s eighth over – which nipped back off the seam.
His double strike gave Procter figures at that stage of three for 18, and Surrey in sudden discomfort at 87 for three, but Ben Foakes hung around for more than an hour for 16 and helped Burns to add 46 for the fourth wicket before top-edging an attempted hook at Tom Taylor straight up in the air for keeper Lewis McManus to take a simple catch.
Curran’s arrival brought an acceleration in the scoring rate, and the England all-rounder smashed left-arm spinner Kerrigan straight for six and also hit nine fours as he continued an early-season comeback from a winter spent recovering from a stress fracture of the back.
Surrey, top of Division One after the first four championship rounds, will be delighted to see Burns back in the runs. Averaging 30.32 from his 32 Tests, including three hundreds, the 32-year-old opener will certainly feel his England days are not yet done while he remains one of the most consistent of county run-scorers.
Northants, for their part, might have done more damage in the first session had their quicker bowlers found a more demanding length. Too often they dropped short, although Burns, Patel and Amla were always quick to punish anything even slightly overpitched with some excellent driving down the ground.
A gorgeous early on-driven four by Burns, off Procter, showed that the left-hander felt in good touch and, in all, he struck 11 fours and faced 259 balls in a timely and battling near six-hour effort.
Burns finally fell in the seventh over of the second new ball, edging the persevering Sanderson low to second slip, and De Grandhomme’s 11 ended with a curious scooped pull high to deep square leg off the same bowler.