A few weeks ago, England named a 55-man training squad, then followed it up with a 30-man group for the West Indies series. In the next few days, it will have been trimmed to 14 players for the First Test, with the others on standby.
With squads of this size, the story is who gets left out. Sam Northeast, who only two summers ago was the next cab off the rank, has fallen out of contention. Jamie Porter, with more than 200 FC wickets in the last three years, seems to be considered too slow. In fairness, those two Championship medals round his neck could be dragging his pace down.
These absences were the most commented upon, but another absentee attracted rather less attention. Gary Ballance, the 30 year old Yorkshire batsman, was not included in the ECB’s list of the 55 best cricketers in the country. Despite being one of the standout performers in county cricket, his non-selection came and went. The decision was largely unremarked upon, journalists understandably focused on the new arrivals. Ballance’s omission wasn’t a scandal or even a talking point. It was worse – it was irrelevant.
So how did we get to this point, where a batsman with four Test tons , and nearly 3000 Division 1 runs at 49 in the last three years, isn’t even in the discussion for selection? Why is the outstanding domestic batsman, who should be entering his prime, so far down the international pecking order?
Whatever happened to Gary Ballance?
EARLY TEST SUCCESS
First Test of the 2014 summer, England put Ballance at No.3. It was just his second Test, and he was handed the considerable challenge of replacing Jonathan Trott. It’s easy to see why England thought he was up to it. Ballance played at a similar tempo to Trott, blunting the new ball, and arrived in Test cricket with a FC average of over 50 against seamers.
They were right to back him; four centuries in his first nine Tests at first drop, with another five half centuries on top of that, more than repaid the faith of coach Peter Moores. Ballance put up just over 1000 runs, in his first 10 matches.
Much of that early success good be attributed to Ballance’s very unorthodox technique. He sat very deep in the crease, camped right on the back foot, and played the ball extremely late. In 2014, Ballance’s average contact point against seamers was just 1.36m from his stumps – no other batsman in the world played the ball later. He looked to score through midwicket off his hip, and cut hard when the ball was wide outside off, his deep stance making both shots easier. His method, whilst not the prettiest, was logical, and grooved.
What’s more, it allowed Ballance to navigate the specific challenges of batting in England, negating swing and seam. Against ‘medium-fast’ bowling, Ballance’s record is among the best England have seen of late, averaging a touch under 45. His ability to deal with good length deliveries of any pace was even more impressive, as shown by an average of 70 against such balls. Only Hashim Amla can better that record in the last decade.
FRONT FOOT ISSUES
After that success in 2014, things began to go wrong for Ballance. That unorthodox technique gave him pronounced strengths, but also pronounced weaknesses, and he found it difficult to deal with very full bowling. His average against full balls (25) was a huge drop from his average against good length and short deliveries (78 and 188 respectively). In that first phase of his career, Ballance’s back foot game was flawless, while his front foot game severely lacked control.
Alongside this, onlookers were questioning Ballance’s ability to play genuinely quick bowling, suggesting his technique made him too easy a target against that against that top gear you only really see in international cricket. The numbers support this accusation, broadly; when bowlers were up and above 140kph, Ballance’s average dropped sharply.
In reality, Ballance’s weakness was more related to length than speed. Whilst the extra pace of certain bowlers pushed him deeper into his crease, Ballance never succumbed to the short ball, or even quick bowling on a good length. In this initial stage of his career, Ballance was dismissed by balls over 140kph only four times – each was pitched up.
Regardless, Ballance had built himself a reputation as someone who couldn’t handle the heat, and teams began to target him. Australia and New Zealand both went at a very full length around off stump, acknowledging that while Ballance could feast on the back foot, if you made him come forward, you were in business. At the start of the 2015 home summer, Hazlewood, Johnson, Southee and Boult all had joy in that zone.
England decided that Ballance’s issue was too pronounced. After that flying start, and just six matches after his last ton, he was dropped.
DIFFICULT SECOND (AND THIRD) STINT
A year later, Ballance was brought back for the series against Pakistan, as England sought to remodel a shaky middle order. However, if Ballance had spent the previous winter working to remodel his idiosyncrasies and become more orthodox in the model of a Test batsman, there was no evidence of it.
He made a gesture to getting further forward in his crease, that contact point moving 10cm or so down the track, but it didn’t translate into helping his scoring. Far from being more comfortable scoring through cover, Ballance had become an even more extreme version of what England had seen the first time round, and had all but eliminated the chance to score through that zone. In his first Test stint, 31% of his runs against pace came in front of square; in 2016, it was just 18%. Those classic ‘Ballance shots’ were doing even more work than before, and yet Ballance had seemingly solved his weakness. A minor tweak to his mentality, rather than a fundamental change to his technique, lifted his average against those full deliveries from 25 to just under 60.
However, covering this weakness appeared to have exposed a different flaw. In this second stint, his issues were primarily against spin. dismissed eight times by spinners in six Tests, at a terrifyingly low average of 10.62. In England, Yasir Shah had him on toast, four wickets at 15.25 representing the sort of dominance a leg-spinner might expect against a right-hander, not a left-hander. A few months later, Mehedi Hasan had him three times in 44 balls.
Ballance had returned to the England team a more timid player against spin. In that first stint he attacked spin 25% of the time (the global average for top order players), but in that second stint it fell to just 13%. The conditions in Bangladesh no doubt made a difference – even the most accomplished players can go into their shell on the spinning wickets you find there – but he showed the same intent against Yasir in England. In 2014 he’d swatted Rangana Herath for 72 runs at 3.6rpo, attacking every third ball, but that intent was gone, and with it his rhythm against spin. Previously, his typical defensive stroke against spin had been played 2m from his stumps, but now it was more like 2.4m. He was attacking less, but coming harder at the ball, propping forward in defence with out conviction.
That took its toll, and with an India series on the horizon – where skills against spin are front and centre for batsmen – Ballance was dropped. After a chastening defeat in the series, and a change of captaincy, Ballance did return six months later, but to no avail. Two Tests against South Africa in the summer of 2017 brought no brighter fortunes. He was dropped again, and hasn’t played since.
If, after that abject final appearance in an England shirt, Ballance had been told to go away and bang the door down with runs for Yorkshire, he did his job. Since that last cap, only six men have scored more County Championship runs than him. Of those players, the only two with a better average in that time – Rory Burns and Dominic Sibley – are now relatively secure in their Test berths.
The gulf between Division One and Division Two isn’t uniform – there are some very strong domestic attacks knocking around at the top of the second tier – but you do have to trust that the concentrated quality in Division One is producing a higher, tougher standard of cricket, and that success in this environment should be held up as a greater achievement. Ballance has 11 Division One tons in the last three seasons, and no other Englishman has more than seven. Only Rory Burns has more Division One runs in that time. Everyone with a higher Division One average than Ballance in the last three years – Burns, Sibley, Ollie Pope – is in the England team.
Sibley’s multiple mentions here are apposite. His charge into the Test team has come off the back of a fundamental shift to his technique, and a fantastically successful following season. Another man seemingly on the verge of a debut is Essex’s Dan Lawrence, another to have made a big technical change, and seen rewards – albeit in much smaller quantities. He may have played some non FC red ball matches of repute, but since his decision to simplify his approach at the crease, Lawrence has played three FC innings of 147, 0, and 125. Hugely impressive, and Lawrence is a wonderfully talented player, but in the previous two years he averaged 30.57.
The technical change is en vogue, and changing your set-up appears to earn you a clean slate in terms of selection. There is a significant PR boost that comes with a burst of runs after a switch-up. It’s a good story, so it gets told. Ballance has never offered that story. His technical changes have been subtle, tweaks rather than overhauls. He’s never asked for or earned that clean slate. He’s just kept making runs. Returning to the side in 2016, he had not changed enough. He had stayed as Gary Ballance.
Ultimately, Ballance is as far from the team as he is – despite his domestic dominance – because he is a known quantity. Lawrence, youthful and with a fresh addition of a new technique, is all potential, all hope. His new technique could be shown to have flaws as pronounced as Ballance’s, or any other batsman. Crucially though, it hasn’t happened yet. Ballance’s refusal to change the narrative surrounding him, by changing his approach and promoting himself accordingly, offers no room for hope or potential, but lets him get on with what he’s paid to do. Score runs for Yorkshire.
Whatever happened to Gary Ballance?
Well, nothing – he’s exactly the same as you left him. Just the way he likes it.