How many England qualified batsmen average better than 47 in first class cricket with 40 centuries and 51 fifties – a conversation rate that would make Joe Root turn an Elphaba shade of green with envy? I’ll tell you how many. None.
And how many England qualified batsmen with four test centuries to their name, who have piled on the runs at championship level for over a decade, get continually ignored by our rogue selectors despite being just 30 years of age? I’ll tell you how many. One.
The man in question, of course, is Gary Simon Ballance of Yorkshire. He averaged 46 in the championship with 5 hundreds last year (the same number of tons as flavour of the month Dom Sibley), 39 in 2018, and a whopping 68 in 2017. He wasn’t quite so prolific in 2016 and 2015 but he was mostly playing for England at the time and had bigger fish to fry.
So why is it, therefore, that many England supporters wince whenever the possibility of a Gary Ballance recall is raised? England’s current No.3 Joe Denly is currently being praised for averaging a meagre 31 in Test cricket. Gary Ballance averages 37 in Test cricket (46 at first drop) with a superior strike rate of almost 50. And yet people say it’s the Yorkshireman who’s painful to watch.
Given the statistics above, one can understand why Ballance fans (which anecdotal evidence tells me are mostly Yorkshire supporters) feel so aggrieved at his continued absence from the international set up. They see him as a readymade solution to our longstanding batting woes – a batsman with gumption who can occupy the crease like Mark Wood occupies the physio’s table.
But there’s just one problem with their statistically compelling case: an even more statistically compelling case can be made against his recall. It’s all about breaking down the data, being more forensic, and looking at what happened in the second half of his Test career rather than the prolific first half.
So let’s break it down. Ballance’s career began at the SCG in 2014 at the end of England’s miserable 0-5 Ashes whitewash. He didn’t make an impact – scoring just 18 and 7 – but he was hardly the only batsman to struggle. Alastair Cook made 7 and 7 in that game – a not so lucky end to an absolutely miserable tour for the golden boy of English cricket at the time.
Fortunately, however, things improved mightily for Ballance when England returned home. Batting at No.3 he averaged 67 against Sri Lanka in the first test series of the summer (registering his first Test ton in the process) and then excelled in England’s home series against India. Young Gary averaged an impressive 72 and emerged as a rock in a batting order that India found impossible to chip away.
Ballance finished his first summer as a Test cricketer with three tons – an outstanding return for a rookie. He was the ECB’s beacon of hope in their post-Kevin Pietersen world. In fact, every time KP’s name was mentioned, Paul Downton usually responded with two words: Gary Ballance.
The good times continued in the West Indies at the beginning of 2015. Ballance averaged 66 in a series that England drew 1-1. He added another ton to his resume (his fourth and final century for England) and the world was clearly at his feet. There was just one problem. He didn’t like moving these feet very much.
The summer of 2015 started with a bang and a hugely entertaining mini-series against New Zealand. Things didn’t exactly go to plan for England’s man of the moment, however. Boult and Southee, two skilful bowlers who can swing the Dukes ball prodigiously, pitched the ball up and tied Ballance in knots. He averaged just 9 in the series and looked all at sea.
Next came the Ashes. Australia arrived on our shores with a more than handy pace attack led by Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc. Sadly they were also too good for Ballance. Although his series started with a gutsy 61 in the first innings of the first test, it was a somewhat tortuous experience reminiscent of Alastair Cook in one of his slumps. Gary’s feet looked like they were tied together (© Bob Willis), the ball passed the outside edge numerous times, and he was clearly battling with his game.
The Aussies, as they tend to do, smelt blood. Gary Ballance’s next three innings resulted in scores of 0, 23, and 14. He was promptly dropped. This seemed a little harsh to some observers, as all young players are entitled to a sophomore slump, but the decision was understandable. After all, Ballance looked totally lost and was clearly struggling with the step up in class. “He’s been worked out” whispered the galleries. His average for the series was just 25.
Suddenly the method which had worked so well for Gary in the previous summer was coming under the microscope. “How can anyone score runs against top class pace bowling when they barely come out of their crease?” the critics asked. I tended to agree. For all the battling qualities Ballance possessed, the step up in quality and the extra pace of the Australian bowlers simply looked too much for him.
However, all was not lost. Ballance was recalled to the side for the series against Pakistan at home the following summer. A second chance! And this time England decided to hide him down the order a bit at No.5. It was a sound idea on paper.
Sadly it didn’t work. Despite an encouraging 71 at Edgbaston, Gary found the going extremely tough against the pace of Amir, Riaz, Rahat, and Sohail – even though Pakistan’s big guns didn’t enjoy particularly prosperous series against England’s other batsmen.
More worrying still, Gary seemed all at sea against Pakistan’s world class leg-spinner Yasir Shah. This didn’t bode well with tours to Bangladesh and India coming up. Although Ballance finished the summer with an average of just 28, he retained his place in the winter squads because his overall Test average (thanks to his prolific 2014) remained healthy.
Somewhat predictably the winter proved to be a struggle. Ballance averaged just 6 against Bangladesh and didn’t play against India at all because the selectors didn’t believe in him anymore. The management were carrying around a player who was vulnerable against fast bowling and also vulnerable against quality spin. This didn’t exactly seem to be a recipe for future success.
However, contrary to claims by Ballance’s fans that he was never given a fair crack of the whip, Gary was brought back again for another crack of the whip against South Africa the following summer. A third chance!
Once again his returns were subpar. Batting back at No.3 it all seemed too much for him again. Morkel, Philander and Co (those pesky world class fast bowlers) sent him packing and he finished the series with an average of 21. He hasn’t played Test cricket since.
Despite all this though, Gary Ballance’s overall Test record still looks enticing – 4 hundreds, 5 fifties, and an average of 37. But this doesn’t tell the whole story of course.
The full narrative reveals a Test career of two distinct halves – his initial eleven Tests, in which he scored runs aplenty at home against Sri Lanka / India and then the West Indies away, followed by his final 12 Tests in which he struggled mightily against New Zealand, Australia, and Pakistan (at home), Bangladesh (away), and then South Africa at home.
His series by series averages after that one-off debut down under says it all:
2014 Sir Lanka (home) 67
2014 India (home) 72
2015 West Indies (away) 66
2015 New Zealand (home) 9
2015 Australia (home) 25
2016 Pakistan (home) 28
2016 Bangladesh (away) 6
2017 South Africa (home) 21
As one can see, the decision to drop Ballance (based on these statistics) was entirely justified. He was given more than enough rope, two recalls, plus the chance to reinvent himself down the order. But he couldn’t back up his early returns.
Ballance remains, in my humble opinion, two stereotypes in one (a) the player that has a great start to his Test career but then gets worked out as video footage disseminates across the world, and (b) the player whose unorthodox method enables him to score runs against mediocre bowling but not the very best.
The second accusation will probably sting Ballance’s supporters the most. But it’s true. Let’s look forensically at the only three bowling attacks Gary has scored runs against – the Sri Lankan attack of 2014, India’s 2014 attack, and the 2015 West Indians. Then we’ll look at the attacks he struggled against.
Sri Lanka’s attack consisted of Kulasekara (average 37), Pradeep (43), and Eranga (38). Yes Herath played in that series but how many finger spinners do well in the first series of the English summer? It’s interesting that Moeen Ali and Sam Robson, two batsmen who also haven’t fulfilled their potential at Test level, were England’s other batting stars in this series.
India’s attack was slightly better than Sri Lanka’s but a pale imitation of the No.1. team they are today. In fact, India’s attack has historically represented easy pickings in English conditions (until very recently). There was no Bumrah back then, Mohammad Shami was an unproven youngster who had only made his debut six months beforehand, and Ashwin / Ishant were struggling for consistency away from home.
As a result, England found runs very easy to come by against India that summer. Our first innings totals were 457, 319, 569/7, 367, and 486. Even the counties filled their boots against India in the warm up games. Leicestershire scored 349/5 with journeymen Greg Smith and Angus Robson (career averages barely above 30) both scoring hundreds. Derbyshire also scored 326/6 with Wes Durston making 95.
The West Indian attack of early 2015 was also lightweight. Their spearhead Kemar Roach had just come back from a serious ankle injury, was well down on pace and struggling for rhythm. Jason Holder also played but he was a newcomer who had yet to take more than two wickets in an innings. Their other bowlers were Jerome Taylor, a young and raw Shannon Gabriel, and ineffectual spinners Devendra Bishoo and Veerasammy Permaul.
The teams that Ballance struggled against, on the other hand, had far more firepower – Boult, Southee, Starc, Hazlewood, Mitchell Johnson, Mohammad Amir, Wahab Riaz, Morkel, Philander. No wonder a player with Ballance’s technique found runs hard to come by. He especially struggled against quality left-arm seamers.
Analysis of poor Gazza’s Test career inevitably circles around his technique – like vultures circling a carcass one might say. His supporters quite rightly point out that orthodoxy is overrated. Steve Smith and Shiv Chanderpaul are just two examples of peculiar batsmen who have demonstrated both prolific run scoring ability and longevity.
However, the difference between Smudge and Shiv on the one hand, and Gary Ballance on the other, is that the former have ugly techniques that work whereas the Yorkshire man has an ugly technique which, at the very highest level at least, has been found wanting.
Bowlers have looked at Steve Smith, licked their lips, and then scratched their heads repeatedly as he’s made hundred after hundred. Bowlers targeting Ballance have generally executed their preconceived plans with aplomb. They have a simple method – pitch the ball up and either swing it or beat him for pace.
The big controversy surrounding Gary Ballance is what, exactly, the selectors said to him when he was dropped. It was reported that Ballance had been asked to work on his technique but he refused and remained determined to play in the same fashion. His club coach at the time though, a certain Jason Gillespie, contradicted this message and argued that he had indeed worked hard on his game.
It seems, however, that whatever changes he made were minimal. After all, Yorkshire chief Martyn Moxon said as recently as April last year that Ballance’s technique is ‘no different’ now than it was in 2014.
Gary Ballance himself has always argued that dramatic changes to his method were unnecessary. Instead he’s kept things relatively simple and tried to focus on small but important changes like transferring his weight more effectively. I can see the logic in this approach. Marcus Trescothick, for example, rarely moved his feet much. He simply stood tall, transferred his weight forward into the ball, and whacked it.
Alastair Cook was another somewhat unorthodox player who often got caught on the crease and struggled to move his weight forward. During his many lean spells Cook’s front leg appeared stiff and he really struggled to drive. However, when he was in form his knee bent more decisively and he drove fluently.
I sense, however, that Gary Ballance has never quite had Trescothick or Cook’s class. Tresco, for example, had an incredible eye that enabled him to play in a way that few top order batsmen could. Meanwhile, although Ballance undoubtedly shares Cook’s doggedness and penchant for long innings, Sir Alastair was very much a one-off. Nobody quite knew how he scored so many with his quirky technique – although it must be pointed out that Cook’s record against top class pace bowling was nowhere near as stellar as it’s fabled to be.
Consequently, if Ballance didn’t change his technique because he fancied his chances of becoming the next Trescothick or Cook, one suspects it was a somewhat pie-eyed or overly optimistic strategy. International batsmen need confidence, of course, but this seems rather over-confident (or naive) to me.
But this doesn’t mean that Ballance is wrong and everyone else (or rather those outside of Yorkshire) are right. Maybe he can have a fourth coming as an England player and prove his critics wrong? It would be a fantastic redemption story.
The problem is that I just can’t see it happening. I doubt he’ll earn a recall in the first place – observers seem to have made their minds up now and won’t be swayed – and even if he does represent England again I suspect the chances of him making runs (against world class opponents anyway) is slim.
But that doesn’t mean that he should abandon all hope. He’s only 30. He clearly still has the appetite to bat forever. And life would be a lot duller without the annual ‘Gary Ballance 4 England’ arguments that crop up every time there’s a vacancy in the side.
In fact, I bet one of these rows erupts in the comments below. And if it doesn’t on the blog, then it almost certainly will on social media.
After all, I suspect no batsman has ever been more admired by a passionate few, whilst being ridiculed by the sneering many, as Gary Ballance.