About Gary Ballance, Batting and Toffee

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“You can’t bat for toffee” a South African gentleman once told me in a club cricket match. At least I think it was toffee. The mind is apt to play tricks, so it may have been some other kind of confectionary or maybe not confectionary at all, and something altogether earthier.

The thought struck me at the time that this was a slightly unfair and subjective statement. It’s all about the context and comparison of course. Compared to Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting – the chosen players are consistent with the chronology of the event – this would indeed be a fair statement. However, compared to my protagonist’s 87 year old grandmother or 9 year old nephew I would like to think that I would be positively Lara-esque.

The only fair comparison would really be between myself and my accuser, which from memory I would rate as no more than a score – draw. Or perhaps more accurately, to use the old Football pools parlance, a no-score draw.

So, why am I sharing with you long forgotten club cricket anecdotes? Well I must confess it’s all about Gary Ballance. You know, the one that sometimes plays for England and can’t bat for toffee! Anyone that observed his travails in Bangladesh would have witnessed his stationary, single figure scoring and arrived at the conclusion that he is “un-selectable”. A mantle that his team-mate and fellow bench-warmer Steve Finn is equally used to.

Every tortured Ballance innings appears to be the very model of nervous indecision and inhibition. And, what tools does Ballance have at his disposal to reassert himself and return to form? A defensive gameplan and two or three shots drawn straight from cricket’s book of mechanics. There’s no caressed carpet skimming cover drive in Ballance’s armoury. Instead he favours the punched drive, the square cut, and the tip around the corner.

Ballance is one of cricket’s shovel wielding tradesman. An altogether cruel irony considering that he’s an old Harrovian. When, like Ballance, you lack the innate ability to deliver pleasing aesthetics then the only currency in which you can pay out is runs. When the “run” currency dries up your position plummets with all the restraint and control of the Zimbabwe Dollar.

Gary Ballance is after all the man that you employ to paint your fence and not your portrait. He is judged only by the efficiency of his work and his value for money. A value measured in runs and not crowd pleasing charm or finesse. No broad brush aesthetics or artistic indulgences are handed to him. He is judged on average alone, and usually even that only in the context of his last 3 or 4 innings.

It is easy to forget that Ballance holds a Test average just a shade below 40. The magic number that separates the ordinary from the proper Test batsman. Even easier still to forget that he was the 3rd fastest Englishman to 1,000 test runs. He stands in the bronze medal position behind two Yorkshire legends, namely Sir Leonard Hutton and Herbert Sutcliffe.

Each time Ballance has been dropped it has been deservedly so. But resolutely he has been brought back in again without addressing any of his old deficiencies. The short ball continues to be an unsolvable conundrum. The full pitched delivery has now propelled itself into his consciousness as another noisy area or fear and doubt. Either as a subtext of his well-documented problems against the bouncer or directly as a result of that heavy legged, back foot technique.

Where batsman like Ballance are concerned the fans sometimes have less patience than the selectors. Giving so few glimpses of art, style, improvisation or glamour they are apt to quickly tire of his pedestrian paced scoring. Following in the footsteps of Jonathan Trott, his runs are only remembered and fully acknowledged when they cease to be provided. Such is the lot for a man hired merely for efficient and effective action. His scores are best read in the newspaper than witnessed first-hand. At the exact moment that he fails to deliver we begin to question his presence. He provides no glimpses of better days or unfulfilled skills ripe for harnessing and development.

Ballance is the machine that once it malfunctions is no longer fit for purpose. To make matters worse, by all accounts, the machine steadfastly refuses to be fixed. Determined to rely upon his old tried and tested programming he remains fixed and rooted to his back-in-the-crease system of trench warfare.

Faith in the tried and tested is in some ways commendable and has its merits. It is in tune with the current commentator and coaching mantra of “trusting your technique” and “believing in your ability”. But the time comes when, unless someone is supremely gifted, they reach the threshold of their talents and can achieve no more. Only with change, evaluation, reassessment and innovation can individuals continue to improve and become greater than the sum of their parts.

Gary Ballance can “bat for toffee”. He will never be Lara, Tendulkar or Ponting, but he can bat well for Yorkshire and England. His average of 39.25 is testament to that. He just needs to remember how and to remember it soon. Although I have a feeling it may already be too late.

Realistically Ballance will only play in India in the unlikely event of an injury. Or if England flat line in the remaining matches and neither Ben Duckett nor Jos Buttler make any runs. But if he actually gets that chance he needs to accept it with both hands. The platform and the conditions are tailor made for him to dig in and bat long.

But maybe he is just one of the last of the Mohicans. A fading image of cricket’s pre 20/20 yesteryear. A reminder of a time when the game was washed down with Best Bitter rather than intravenous hits of Vodka Red Bull. Perhaps, alas, he is the wrong man for today’s entertainment business. The gritty old attritional Yorkshire world of George Hirst, Wilfred Rhodes and Emmett Robinson might have suited him better.

But, for those of us that love the jagged edges and nuances of the long game, we hope not.

Garry White

11 Comments

  1. I have been a long term fan of Ballance and agree that stylish players get more benefit of the doubt. Take James Vince last summer, he wasn’t getting passed 42 but he looked good getting their and that is why England kept thinking he would break though the next innings

    Gary’s major problem is that his currency has dried up in domestic cricket as well, yes his average post the Pakistan series was damaged by being expected to throw his wicket away against Durham and Middlesex but even adjusted it wasn’t good enough at a time when Yorkshire needed their big players to stand up. He hasn’t been helped at Yorkshire that he can’t hold a stable batting position due to England call up and coming and going of overseas players.

    He won’t play this tour unless there is an injury even if Buttler doesn’t get runs they will give him three tests. So then Gary has a bit of time on his hands before the start of the 2017 CC season and it will be up to him to decide if he wants to look at his batting method, he did that after being dropped in 2015 and decided the changes made things worse. After a summer when he didn’t get the runs he would have liked in any format domestic or international he will have to consider the question again.

    Then the season will start and then the game is afoot, post subcontinent England (Buttler depending) will effectively have two middle order slots open at 4 and 5. These will be up for grabs and who know if he puts up huge number he could be in with a shout as the first Test Match isn’t till July 10th

  2. I fear you are right about Ballance not playing again this tour, but hope you are wrong. Rather in the spirit of your analysis I see him as the least worst option out of him, Duckett and Buttler (as Duckett is clearly unable to defend spin and Buttler is a pure T20 player when we need grit).

    As a slight diversion on your story of the Saffer in the club game; I was batting against the Staines Saffer opening bowler a few years back who was getting shirty and trying to bounce us out. It very nearly ended in a punch up when my batting partner started singing “I’ve never met a nice South African” as he ran in to bowl. For those unfamiliar it is the Spitting Image number which goes;
    ‘I’ve had a close encounter of the 22nd kind
    That’s where the alien spaceship disappears up your behind
    But I’ve never met a nice South African
    etc’
    A bit unkind but it dates to the apartheid era.

      • A golden era of satire! My favourite was the 1987 sketch of the newly elected Thatcher cabinet singing ‘Tomorrow belongs to me’ as a spoof of the Cabaret Nazi scene. It could never happen with todays political correctness.

  3. If I had to choose between unsuccessful players, I’d prefer to watch an elegant or exciting one than a crab – hence almost anyone rather than Ballance at the moment!

    • I( have bad memories of watching Gary Kirsten – made lots of runs almost exclusively by nurdling the ball down to third man.)

      • Shiv Chanderpaul gets my vote as the best ugly player in the history of cricket. He was absolutely atrocious to watch – a complete eye sore – but he was bloody good. In my opinion he’s an all time great. Averaging 50 in a succession of absolutely terrible Windies teams.

  4. “To make matters worse, by all accounts, the machine steadfastly refuses to be fixed. ”

    How many professional cricketers have gone away, completely abandoned the technique they’ve spent their entire life honing, and that has been good enough to get them a professional contract, and then learnt an entirely different technique from scratch, and returned to professional cricket as a better player?

    None, that’s how many. You might as well ask a right-handed batsman to turn round and start batting left handed or an international-class spin bowler to go away and try to learn to bowl 90mph.

    • That’s a bit extreme AB. Plenty of batsmen tweak their techniques over time. Just look at Gooch and perhaps the best modern example of them all, Hashim Amla. He was a walking wicket when he first played test cricket but he’s tightened up his game considerably and is now one of the best players in the world.

      I don’t think anyone expected Ballance to completely reinvent himself. I think what struck many observers was his failure to change at all. He said he tried but simply couldn’t.

  5. Ballance should be left to play a full season for Yorkshire, there’s plenty of time to get back in the England side and I really believe that above any technical issues its his confidence that is getting him out. When you are confident you watch the ball closer, move early and play the ball late as your mind is free and ready to react. Balances isn’t at the moment and it’s easy to see why. His technique is good enough when he’s confident, he makes enough movement and weight transfer and plays with a straight bat.

    Change nothing, just bat

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