In the first issue of the Pinch Hitter, Yorkshire batsman Gary Ballance talks to James Buttler about the highs and lows of his three stints in England’s Test side and why, while he hasn’t given up hope of another recall, he’s happy with his lot at Headingley.
Six balls of play remained on a sunny June day at Lord’s. England were in command against Sri Lanka heading into the final day and Gary Ballance, playing his second Test, had been made aware of the prospect of an overnight declaration. He’d accelerated to 97 in the evening session and decided that the spin of Rangana Herath was getting the treatment. A slog sweep into the crowd over mid-wicket and Ballance’s name was on the honours board.
“I’ve never had a better feeling in cricket,” Ballance tells The Pinch Hitter. “I can’t describe how brilliant it was. Nothing beats that.”
After that breakthrough season in 2014, he began the following English summer with a record of 1,060 runs at 66.25 in his first 11 Tests – a highest score of 158 against India at the Ageas Bowl one of four Test centuries in a stellar start to his international career which led to him being named the ICC’s Emerging Player of the Year.
“People have said it possibly wasn’t a good thing to start so well because it was only downhill from there,” Ballance laughs. “That summer was one of the best of my career. I got hundreds, we had an unbelievable series win against India and I won the Championship with Yorkshire.”
I first met Ballance when I was media manager at Yorkshire. I shook hands with a quiet 18-year-old contemplating a move from Derbyshire and then watched him pile on the runs for Yorkshire’s Academy, playing alongside Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow. It was obvious all three would play for England. My money was on Ballance doing the best of the lot. Just a sportsman’s bet, of course. We were in Yorkshire!
By 2014, England were looking for a player to fill the Jonathan Trott-shaped hole at No.3 and the selectors opted to shoehorn Ballance in, despite him making his county runs lower down the order.
“It was an unknown position for me,” Ballance confirms. “Ian Bell had played almost 100 Tests and was a brilliant No.4. Rooty was at No.5. Peter Moores [then England coach] asked me if I’d do it and I wasn’t going to say no. Starting well gave me belief.”
My bet was looking solid after Ballance’s superb start to his Test career and he also featured in England’s white-ball plans, earning a call-up to the 2015 World Cup squad. But while he recalls that maiden Test hundred at Lord’s as his favourite cricket memory, the World Cup campaign Down Under is his worst.
“I’d had a broken finger for a month leading up to the tournament and was only fit a week before our first game,” he recalls. “I’d played one innings and had a few net sessions. Getting picked to play against Australia at the MCG was a proud moment. It didn’t go well [Ballance scoring 10 in a 111-run defeat].
“Then, in front of a packed Wellington crowd, we got bowled out for around 100 and New Zealand knocked it off in 10 overs. It was embarrassing. I remember getting abuse from the Kiwi fans and even some of the English supporters were getting stuck in. It was tough to bounce back from. That World Cup had a massive impact on my Test career. It felt like people had a different opinion of me after that.”
A productive tour of the West Indies (326 runs at 65.20) a couple of months later suggested his place in England’s Test XI was assured, but after a relatively lean period on home soil – in which he made 36 in four knocks against New Zealand before scores of 61, 0, 23 and 14 in the first two Tests of the 2015 Ashes – he was dropped.
“I had a few bad games, got left out and it was quite hard to recover,” he admits. “You are going to get criticism, and rightly so as it’s international cricket, but when people are constantly talking about you getting dropped, it’s hard because you never want to be playing for your place. You want to know you’ve got the confidence of the coaches and captain. When you’re playing for your place, you’re not getting the best out of a player. It creates pressured situations where you feel you have to score runs to play again. I got dropped and found that difficult, because it’s playing for your country. It was a massive confidence dent.”
Ballance’s half-century in the first Ashes Test at Cardiff, in which he shared a 147-run stand with Root to rescue England from 43-3, was vital in setting up a 169-run victory. But his place was nonetheless under fierce scrutiny.
“In my first stint in Test cricket I felt pretty confident,” says Ballance. “I might only have got 61, but I felt it was one of my best innings. I felt good, scored 23 and 14 in the second Test, and was completely shocked to get dropped. It set my career back a good couple of years.
“I got a few phone calls from selectors and coaches and had a lot of people telling me what I needed to improve. ‘You’ve got to take it on the chin, go back to Yorkshire and score runs to get back in’. Even back at Headingley, I was insecure about everything as you know how much criticism you’re getting.”
Yorkshire have been the beneficiary whenever Ballance has been cast aside by England and he was recalled to the Test side in July 2016 for the series against Pakistan after a solid start to the county season.
As an advocate of the ‘Ballance for England’ campaign, my cries have often been met with derision on social media. People tell me his technique has been found out, he’s not learned lessons, he defends too deep and is a walking lbw.
“When I’m feeling at my best I don’t get out lbw that much,” insists Ballance. “Not many people have been dropped when they are averaging 47 in Test cricket. I’m still averaging 37-plus and there aren’t many people doing that. I made technique changes to try and get bigger strides in. But it is more about your weight and not the stride. I’d get a bigger stride in, my weight was back, and I ended up nicking off and wasn’t scoring runs.
“You have to balance looking to get better and being true to yourself and your strengths. Once I found that balance, I was able to be more consistent for a longer period. Do you go back to county cricket and try and score as many runs as you can to get picked, or come up with a completely different technique, score no runs in county cricket and not get picked anyway?
“I’ve never been comfortable with being average. Even when I was playing for England and doing well I always thought I needed to find ways of improving. Even now, I’m still trying to adjust my technique so I can be better against certain types of bowlers. I will do that until I retire.”
Ballance has spent the winter working on playing spin to counter the quality twirlers plying their trade in the top tier of the County Championship. Everyone is different. Some players need hours of nets, others just need to feel loved and valued. Ballance has always needed to feel part of the team. Secure in that environment, he can trust his game and contribute. Anyone will struggle without self-belief.
His last four innings in his second stint in the Test side came on a tough tour of Bangladesh in October 2016, when he made only 24 runs and was not surprised to be left out.
In the summer of 2017, Ballance was recalled again to take on South Africa. Scores of 20, 34, 27 and 4 were not horrendous in a bowler-friendly series but after breaking a finger in the second innings of the Trent Bridge Test, he hasn’t featured since.
It would appear I’ve lost my bet, with England’s selectors now looking elsewhere. But, should they ever need a player that has averaged 37.45 in 23 Tests, scored over 11,000 runs in first-class cricket at 47.40 and, at the age of 30, has the experience to know what is required at the highest level, they could do worse than looking towards Headingley.
“I’d love to play again,” he says. “But it’s about timing and I think we’ve got some of the best young talent we’ve had for years. Hopefully those young lads get a good go. At some point they will go through a bad patch. You’ve got to let them get through the tough times and, when they come out the other end, they will be better players.
“I’d tell them to back themselves. You need self-confidence, stubbornness and a belief you are good enough. Alastair Cook and Rooty have that. There’s no coincidence they are the best two English batsmen of recent times. I used to have that and I’ve got it back now. I went through a period where I started doubting myself.”
Married to Alex in 2018 and happy with life in Yorkshire, one wonders whether Ballance needs a fourth call-up. The Yorkshire members always tell me to stay quiet. They want to see his runs scored at Headingley.
“I feel fortunate to have played Tests for England,” he adds. “If I get to play again, great. If I don’t, I’ll be alright.”
The Pinch Hitter aims to help out freelance cricket writers during the current coronavirus crisis. Read on a pay-what-you-can basis here