Ashes a distant dream for besieged Ballance

16 July 2017
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Endorsed by Test captain and close friend Joe Root, the prolific Yorkshire form of Gary Ballance has so far again failed to translate into Test runs

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Chris Stocks is a freelance cricket writer based in London. He is a regular contributor to the Guardian, Daily Mail, Independent and London Evening Standard.

While it's tempting to wonder whether Gary Ballance will be in England's team come the first Ashes Test at the Gabba in November, the real question is will he still be there by the end of this series against South Africa?

This northern summer has seen Ballance given his third chance at Test level after he was dropped following an abysmal tour of Bangladesh last October, when he scored 24 runs across two Tests.

That had seemed like the end of the road for the 27-year-old, who you may remember saw his first spell in England's team ended following Australia's crushing 405-run victory in the 2015 Lord's Ashes Test.

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Yet Ballance's stunning start to the county season for Yorkshire, for whom he averages 101 in four-day cricket, saw him drafted in at the behest of new Test captain Joe Root for this four-match series against South Africa.

Former England spinner Graeme Swann, commentating on the BBC's Test Match Special during the second day's play of the second Test at Trent Bridge, said Ballance was only in the team because his "best mate" was captain.

That is way too strong.

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But on the eve of this match, Root did admit that Ballance, his Yorkshire teammate, was ostensibly his pick and backed him to justify that faith, saying: "I take a lot of responsibility in the selection of the squad. There were a number of guys who were discussed but it was hard to look past the number of runs Gary has scored this season. I honestly believe that he is not far away from making a really big score."

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Ballance was made Yorkshire captain this northern summer precisely because they didn't expect him to get an England call-up following a nightmare end to 2016 that saw him dragged around India for two months as a non-playing member of the squad after his failures in Bangladesh.

And that big innings Root predicted last Thursday has yet to appear, Ballance following up scores of 20 and 34 in the first Test at Lord's with 27 on a second day at Trent Bridge that saw England collapse from 2-86 to 205 all out following the Zimbabwean-born batsman's dismissal to Vernon Philander shortly after lunch.

The idiosyncrasies of Ballance's technique, a failure to move his feet properly and a tendency to get stuck way back in his crease, are still there. Moreover, his position at No.3 looks too high for a player who has flourished back on the county one place down the order at four.

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South Africa's bowling attack is a good one, as Australia found out last year on home soil.

If Ballance does get through this series – and he will need a big score at some point, preferably a century – then he would have earned the right to keep his place in the team.

At the moment, though, that seems a long way off.

Michael Vaughan summed up the challenge for Ballance in his column for the UK's Daily Telegraph on Friday.

"Gary is now in a mental battle," said England's 2005 Ashes-winning captain. "You can pick at his technique and find faults but at Test level you can do that to almost every player. Graeme Smith's technique was not one you wanted to copy. But he was mentally strong and had a great Test career because of it.

"So it is too easy to say Gary is technically not good enough because players like Smith have proved you can be good enough if your mind is strong.

"Can he cope with the relentless pressure of a Test series where opponents can continually pick at your weaknesses?

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"You get out in county cricket and the week after you face a different team with different bowlers. "In Test cricket you don't get that. Weaknesses are spotted by the opposition and pounced on.

"Gary is not a natural No.3 but he has to make it work for him to stay in this England team to make sure he is still in the mix when the side arrives in Australia.

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"England have been consistent sticking with players but Gary will not be given as long a run this time because it is his third spell in the team."

Ballance did initially flourish after making his debut in the final Test of the 2013-14 Ashes series in Sydney, going on to score three centuries the following northern summer.

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At the time he was dropped the following year, rather unfairly many suggested, his average was a respectable 47.76 after 15 Tests.

However, that has now fallen to 38.30 in 23, with his average during the second spell – spanning six matches – 19.90 and his current one, after only one-and-a-half Tests, 27.

It's that decline in average, which is the major sign that Ballance won't cut it as a Test player and it's why he's unlikely to be on the plane when England set off for Australia later this year.