Chris Waters: Ballance left with nothing to lose in latest big Test

BACK IN THE FRAME: Gary Ballance in action for England at Lord's earlier this year. Picture: Nigel French/PA
BACK IN THE FRAME: Gary Ballance in action for England at Lord's earlier this year. Picture: Nigel French/PA
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MY FAVOURITE cricketing quote of 2017 so far came from the lips of Gary Ballance.

Interviewing the Yorkshire captain on the day that he was named in England’s Ashes squad, I asked whether he perceived his inclusion as a chance to silence his critics once and for all.

“I’ve had a lot of criticism along the way but I honestly just expect it now; I wake up expecting it,” said Ballance.

It conjured images in my mind of someone who matter-of-factly opened his morning newspaper in the sure and certain knowledge that someone, somewhere would have slagged him off – most likely a former player – and ripped his technique to shreds.

“Who’s had a go at you today, dear?” a sympathetic voice might enquire of Ballance as he perused his paper over breakfast.

“Oh, you know, just the usual crowd. Any more cereal left in the cupboard?”

UP FOR GRABS: Dawid Malan has struggled to make the No 5 spot his own in what has proved a difficult summer with England. Picture: John Walton/PA

UP FOR GRABS: Dawid Malan has struggled to make the No 5 spot his own in what has proved a difficult summer with England. Picture: John Walton/PA

At times, it must indeed have felt as though a daily dose of opprobrium was heading Ballance’s way during a stop-start career at international level.

Having made a brilliant start to that career by becoming the third-fastest England player to 1,000 Test runs, Ballance was discarded during the 2015 Ashes, recalled and then discarded again after last winter’s trip to Bangladesh, and then handed his Ashes chance after Essex’s Tom Westley failed to grab his.

After Ballance broke his left index finger against South Africa in July, Westley struggled in his place at No.3 and, with Dawid Malan having failed to cement his position at No.5, it would now seem to be a shootout between Ballance and Malan for the No.5 slot in Australia, with James Vince set to take Westley’s spot at No 3.

Complicated? It has invariably been thus in recent years when it comes to selecting England’s top-order.

I’ve been there (to Australia) before, so I know what it’s like and I know what conditions are like

Yorkshire’s Gary Ballance

But the upshot is that if Ballance can impress in the warm-up games ahead of the first Test in Brisbane on November 23, he could well return to the England team and indeed silence his band of critics for good.

After a splendid season in Yorkshire colours, which brought him a return of 951 County Championship runs at 67.92, Ballance will know that he might not have too many, if any more, chances at international level beyond this series.

At 27, he should be approaching the peak of his capabilities and, despite his struggles in the second half of his Test career, he still averages 37 from 23 matches, with four centuries along the way.

Ballance needs to grab this chance and, on recent form, he has an excellent opportunity to do just that.

FAMILIAR FACE: Gary Ballance has a big supporter in the shape of county team-mate and England captain, Joe Root. Picture: AP/Ricardo Mazalan

FAMILIAR FACE: Gary Ballance has a big supporter in the shape of county team-mate and England captain, Joe Root. Picture: AP/Ricardo Mazalan

A tour of Australia is as tough as it gets, but there seems a relaxed air about a player who may wake up expecting criticism, but who nowadays gives the impression of taking it all smoothly in his stride, so inured to it all has he evidently become.

“What have I got to lose?” Ballance might indeed ask himself as he boards the plane to head Down Under.

Absolutely nothing, is the simple answer.

Indeed, having been pilloried from pillar to post, the brickbats are not going to get any worse for Ballance, who can play with a certain amount of freedom as a result.

Certainly the man who will join his Yorkshire team-mates Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow on the plane is thick-skinned and sanguine, confident in the knowledge that if the England situation does not go well, he has a good gig to look forward to back at Yorkshire.

Part of the reason why Ballance has been criticised – mostly by former players, it has to be said – is that he stubbornly refuses to change his technique, one which sees him play deep in the crease and which has been exploited by faster bowlers in the past.

Ballance’s argument is always that his technique has got him this far and that his game feels worse if he starts tinkering around with it. That is not to say that he does not strive to make improvements, or that he does not listen to advice, merely that he knows what works for him.

In some cases, stubbornness is a strength, and Ballance is as stubborn as they come in his desire to succeed.

One reason why this Ashes series could go well for him is that he is not likely to bat at 
No 3, the position he filled before he got injured. He is not a natural No 3 and has prospered for Yorkshire further down the order, so No 5 would seem a much better fit, provided Malan, of course, does not get the nod.

Ballance is highly-regarded by Root, his friend and captain, which is unlikely to go against him in selection discussions, and he has toured Australia before.

Ballance debuted in the fifth and final Test of the 2013-14 tour at Sydney, batting for over an hour-and-a-half in the first innings and impressing many with his calm approach.

“I’ve been there (to Australia) before, so I know what it’s like and I know what conditions are like,” he said.

“That definitely helps, and I’m going to make sure I’m ready.”

Ballance added: “First and foremost, I’m just delighted to be in the squad. It’s a huge honour to go on an Ashes tour, and the one in 2013-14 was a great experience and a great learning curve.”

If Ballance can “crack it” this time at international level, he could yet have years at the top in an England shirt.

It would be a big blow to Yorkshire if they lost him to England, particularly with the county’s batting department having struggled of late, and they would surely need to find another captain if Ballance does go on to cement his Test place.

But with so few viable candidates for the England top-order, Ballance can only be one good series from an extended run in the team. Although the hit to Yorkshire would be considerable, everyone at Headingley will be wishing him well.

Freddie Flintoff.

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