Heading into this winter there was no England player under more pressure than Gary Ballance. Having burst into international cricket in 2014, Ballance got off to a great start. He scored a hundred in his second Test, against Sri Lanka at Lords. He had two more tons in the series against India and another in the West Indies. After 11 Tests Ballance had 1060 runs at an average of 62.35.
From that high-water mark things went downhill fast. During the summer of 2015 Ballance played four Tests and scored 134 runs with one score of over 50. By the time England reached the third Test of the Ashes series that summer, Ballance had been dropped to be replaced by Jonny Bairstow.
His technique was getting him in trouble, and while it is never a nice thing to say about an international batsman, there was the impression that he had been found out. Mike Selvey did a fine job of explaining the issues and advantages to Ballance’s unique method that sees him move right back across his pads in the Guardian. Bowlers may have been tempted to bowl at Ballance’s pads, Selvey points out that would be a mistake.
“[His] technique allows him time to see the movement in: he is prolific through midwicket as a result. His trigger movement, while a strength in one way, proved a weakness in another for he was allowing the ball to be pitched up a fraction further, with more movement consequently, so bowlers who sent the ball away from him were able either to go outside his bat yet still hit his exposed off-stump or find the edge.”
The recall of Ballance in the place Nick Compton for the series against Pakistan this summer was something of a surprise. Those technical issues that international bowlers were looking to exploit had not gone anywhere. He still has the same exaggerated trigger movement and the associated issues outside the off stump. In the week before his recall he had the good sense to score a hundred for Yorkshire against Middlesex in front of chief selector, James Whittaker and England’s Director of Cricket, Andrew Strauss.
The problems that saw Ballance left out of the side in the middle of 2015 were still very evident as he struggled his way to 195 runs in seven innings against Pakistan. In Bangladesh things were even worse as he managed just 24 runs in four innings, not reaching double figures even once. From that highpoint after 11 Tests his career average has plummeted to under 40, and in the 10 Tests since that West Indies tour in early 2015 he averages 18.57.
England need to decide where they go if they dispense with Ballance. Once they decided to move on from Ian Bell there hasn’t been anyone who has staked a claim for his spot in the lineup and they are having to either pick players that have already come into the team and been dropped or select kids and hope for the best. That is why they gave Ballance the Tests in Bangladesh and why they are desperate for him to succeed. He has scored big runs in Test cricket and they think he can do it again. Although it is not immediately clear when that will happen.
If they do drop Ballance for India they will have to either rejig the batting lineup to open with 19-year-old Hameed Haseeb and move Ben Duckett from the opening spot he occupied in Bangladesh. Or they will have to bring in Jos Buttler, a player that has done great things in one-day cricket but has struggled in Tests. It is all a bit of a mess, and a problem the selectors created for themselves when they went back to Ballance when there were better options in county cricket such as Scott Borthwick, Keaton Jennings and, dare I say it, Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen.
By giving Ballance every chance to succeed they have put themselves in a bit of a quandary. There are no warm-up games ahead of the Indian Tests so if Buttler or Hameed come into the team it will be during the first match of a massive series. Perhaps having backed Ballance in the summer it made sense to persist with him for the start of the winter, but this situation has an air of inevitability to it.
There is no doubt that Ballance is a batsman of rare talent, but just as when England kept picking him when he was struggling at last year’s World Cup, doing so again is unfair on everyone, Ballance in particular.
Click here to read profiles of other players involved in the India-England Test series.
Click here for the full schedule, when and where to watch the matches, live coverage on TV, online streaming.