The great tragedy of England’s six-man bowling attack is that Gary Ballance never gets to bowl. We reckon that Joe Root and Keaton Jennings are likely to get on before him as well, so realistically he’s ninth choice. England will need to have an extraordinarily bad day before we see his right-arm filth get another airing.
There was a moment when the ball had softened when we started to dream, but England plugged away, aided by Hashim Amla who tried really hard to get caught hooking and eventually managed it.
309-6 is the kind of score that makes someone like Graeme Smith say “it’s been a riveting day of Test cricket.” It isn’t the kind of score where he’d say “you might as well get Ballance on – what have you got to lose?”
We want England to do well, but we also want to see Gary Ballance bowl. It’s a very difficult situation for us. The only solution that we can see is Joe Root developing a taste for funky captaincy.
Bringing Gary Ballance on first change would be Sly-and-the-Family-Stone-with-a-guest-appearance-by-Bootsy-Collins funky.
When a player is dropped during a home series, there’s only one way back into the side. They perform well in first-class cricket, they tell themselves they’ve proved the doubters wrong and they return mentally buoyed.
When you’re dropped on tour, things can pan out differently. Gary Ballance has just been dropped at the very start of a five-Test tour of India. Forget being a professional and selection and non-selection being part and parcel of a career, the man himself will feel that he has been evaluated and found wanting. It is a straightforward rejection of him as an individual.
And this guy is now the reserve batsman; a guy who may have to come back into the team should someone else fall ill, sustain an injury or fail.
People talk about international cricket being a treadmill, but let’s appropriate that metaphor and use it differently.
When you’re playing cricket, you’re not on a treadmill – you’re moving. Hopefully, you’re scoring runs and moving forwards, but you could also be having a hard time and edging towards the trapdoor. Either way, things are changing.
Out of the team, you can still make progress one way or another by playing domestic cricket, but on tour, nothing happens – nothing meaningful anyway. You bat in the nets and it can feel like things are changing, but without testing yourself out in the real world, you’re basically putting in a load of effort and going nowhere. You’re on a treadmill.
Captains and coaches seem increasingly happy look at performances in the nets when picking a side, but we’re not convinced that the players themselves feel the same way. They still talk about everything being different ‘in the middle’.
Gary Ballance is looking at a lot of net practice over the next few months and should he return to the side, nothing will have changed in terms of his results in competitive cricket matches.
He has been dropped because England think there’s a whole bunch of batsmen who are better than him. If one of those suffers a similar fate later in the series, Ballance probably won’t feel like he’s earned back his Test place. He will feel like he’s been returned to the side thanks to proximity, because another player has been even worse than he was when he was last rejected. It’s hard to imagine a player in that frame of mind really sticking it to the world.
We’re delighted that Haseeb Hameed is playing a Test match. At the same time we can’t help but feel that there may be further changes to come. The decision to send Gary Ballance on tour and then instantly drop him from the team means this England squad is already looking rather thin.
England dropped Gary Ballance before the third Ashes Test of 2015 after a run of form that wasn’t actually all that dreadful with the benefit of hindsight. He had passed 30 once in his last 10 innings and had been bowled five times. People said he struggled against good quick bowlers.
He came back into the side in 2016, played six Tests and was quite brutally dropped again. Then he played two more against South Africa and was dropped again.
The problem, perhaps, is that there wasn’t really much of a case for bringing him back that summer. By doing so, England arguably negated the positive effects of dropping him in the first place.
If a player finds himself bumbling along going nowhere in Test cricket, it’s no good to anybody. The notion that a big innings is ‘just around the corner’ starts to fade as the player in question struggles to inch their way towards that corner, let alone round it. Dumped back in county cricket, they have a bit of a cry and then slowly set about making corrections.
In this situation, we generally hear about some technical change or other, but we’d argue that in most cases it’s just as important for the change to serve as physical foundations for renewed confidence and certainty.
Batsmen rarely fail because of just one flaw, but “I’ve made a visible change and it’s working,” can provide a major mental boost in addition to the (often small) practical one.
But confidence and certainty will often take longer. You get oddities who will master something in the nets and instantly feel like they’re back to their best, but most players will need to see a few big numbers next to their name to convince themselves that they’re back on an upward curve.
Gary Ballance never got this. His confidence started to slip during the 2015 World Cup and in the English summer that followed, he found himself hanging by his fingertips. Unable to haul him up, team management did the decent thing. They stamped on his fingers and told him to find a way to clamber back up from the bottom. This is what he set about doing.
If England are on the tenth floor, Ballance reached the fourth floor before someone was sent down to get him. Often, a player who fights his way back into the team is shot-through with confidence because it’s been a real struggle and he’s made an unarguable case to return to the side.
Gary Ballance is not such a player. His return was too easy.
As we said about James Taylor in 2014, the optimum moment to select a batsman is not when he thinks he deserves a place in the side; it’s when he’s completely irritated because he can’t quite believe he isn’t getting a game.
There’s an art to timing a recall. You’ve got one guy who thinks: “This is a nice surprise – I was only up to the fourth floor,” and another guy who’s spent God-knows-how-long trying to prise open the tenth floor window. When it’s finally opened for him, he says “about bloody time” with a face like thunder. Which would you want in your team?
Long term, bringing Gary Ballance back into the Test team in 2016 did his confidence – and therefore his form – no good at all.
It’s a reference to a headline pun that’s overused on this website but which isn’t itself a pun. Jokes don’t come much weaker than that. Except for all our other ones.
Is Gary Ballance back? Sport is brutally cold and England won’t go into the first Test of the summer with an empty batting slot where James Taylor would have been. They’ll pick someone in his place. Possibly Gary Ballance.
For a time, two of our most common thoughts while watching a Test match were, “At least Ballance is still in,” when England were batting and, “Get Ballance on!” when they were bowling. We like Gary Ballance. We like his doughy tenacity. We like the chaos of his part-time right-arm semi-filth.
Last year’s imballance was a strange one with our man seemingly decked by the coaching team’s faith in him. Returning from injury, he was thrust into England’s World Cup team at number three and short of practice, he floundered. England’s World Cup campaign was a catastrophe and he carried his newfound runlessness through to the summer, at which point he was dropped.
Experts love a technical weakness and declared this to be the cause of his ills. Gary is of a different mind. He reckons that far from being the problem, his technique is what got him to where he is.
The line between delusional stubborness and justifiably single-minded conviction is a narrow one and it is defined by how many runs you score. ‘Gary Ballance’s back’ hinges on what happens next.
Gary Ballance doesn’t so much score Test hundreds as cut them. Short and wide, fair enough, but our Gary seems to play the shot to middle stump half volleys as well. Fair enough. Whatever works.
Ballance isn’t the only England player who appears to be sloughing his horrifically stained World Cup skin. We questioned how Stuart Broad had got back into the team earlier in the Test, but being as he’s here, it’s reassuring to see that there are signs he could return to good form.
As several have pointed out, it’s not that Broad’s incapable of bowling quickly right now, it’s just that he can’t do it regularly or for long. Hopefully this will come as his body again adapts to Test cricket and there will hopefully be a window of optimal performance before his pace starts being eroded again due to too much cricket.
Jos Buttler seemed to benefit from some declaration batting and there’s every reason to believe this will snap him out of the bizarre strokelessness that delivered a 22-ball duck in the first innings. With Ben Stokes batting well and Moeen Ali returning, this begs the question as to who will bat at eight. England’s tail may just have been docked.
After winning the previous Test with four-and-a-bit bowlers, India could have gone either way for this one. Unsurprisingly, they went with four bowlers, not five.
Sometimes you can determine a lot from these fifty-fifty calls and MS Dhoni does seem to be a bit of a ‘pick the extra batsman’ kind of bloke. He doesn’t mind picking five bowlers every now and again (just so long as at least two of the bowlers are also credible batsmen) but you can tell he’s a lot more comfortable once the team’s back to normal, even if that means losing.
Dhoni captains his team as if runs win matches. This is all well and good in the shorter formats where runs are indeed the unit of currency, but in Test cricket runs merely prevent you from losing. To win, you need to take wickets. What message does picking six batsmen send to the opposition?
When you’re dismissed for 95, one crucial thing does not change. People can still say: “He hasn’t made a hundred since…”
Right now, on the day he made 95, we all know that Alastair Cook played an innings that was tantamount to a hundred. However, in about a fortnight, when it’s no longer fresh in the mind, people will say: “He hasn’t made a hundred since…” and it will seem that nothing has changed.
It’s also important to note how ludicrous it is that this innings will to some degree shore up his captaincy credentials when it had precisely ball-all to do with the aspect of captaincy he most struggles with, which is of course ‘captaincy’.
Come on, admit it. You’re starting to think that too now. That constantly snarling facial expression is embedding itself in your brain and becoming just another part of your everyday life, like drinking tea or sighing each morning at the sheer pointlessness of it all.
A lot. It seems to be his default facial expression while batting. It’s a little disconcerting.
But on the plus side, we’ve already started thinking to ourself: “At least Ballance is still in,” as if he’s the most reliable of the England batsmen. Like Jonathan Trott, you don’t really feel the need to watch him. You just check in on his score every once in a while.
A Test hundred mere days after drinking a bit too much. You wouldn’t think it possible, would you?
We’re a day late with this really, but maybe it’s taken that long to fully sink in. Gary Ballance is our new favourite batsman.
We know Sam Robson scored a hundred, but we’ve not yet warmed to him in quite the same way. There were too many edges. Ballance, despite scoring fewer runs, seems infinitely more reassuring.
He just has a doughy tenacity about him and an expressionless way of going about things that makes you think he has absolutely no perspective in life; that everything’s about scoring runs. Clearly, that’s massively unhealthy and probably sets him up for a massive fall later in his career, but as a fan, sitting at home, willing your team to do well, it’s clearly a positive.
Cricketers have too much fun these days. If they’re not joking around in the field, grinning at each other, they’re laughing with their batting partner about the outrageous four they just hit. But Test cricket seems a serious business for Gary Ballance and that’s excellent to see, because Test cricket is a serious business. When everyone’s stony-faced and earnest, acting like it’s a life or death situation, watching at home, the game seems more important.
Yesterday, the ball found the edge but went wide of Gary Ballance. He made much the same face as he ever does, but his body language said: “That could have been a catch. That could have been a Test catch. Someone could have been out in Test match cricket.”
Everything suddenly seems very, very important when Gary Ballance is involved. It’s the way Test cricket should be.
Cricket fans adore statistics. For most of you, the sport itself is just a convenient means of generating data. Numbers are your true love.
Here are some.
And a nod to Usman Arshad of Durham for his 16 wickets at 15.56 as well.
Ballance was the only batsman to hit five hundreds; Nottinghamshire’s Michael Lumb managed four. Graham Onions was the only bowler to take five five-fors; Ollie Raynor and Chris Jordan both managed four.
The more metrics you consider, the more the season appears to revolve around just two men. The other names may change, but Graham Onions and Gary Ballance appear on every list.
England’s Ashes squad now makes both more and less sense.