Gary Ballance made his case for a Test debut with a patient half-century in another disappointing display from England’s batsmen.
Ballance hopes to be included in next week’s Second Ashes Test in Adelaide as a replacement for Jonathan Trott, who flew home earlier this week with a stress-related illness. Ballance is fighting for a spot at No 6 with his Yorkshire team-mate Jonny Bairstow and Durham all-rounder Ben Stokes.
Against a Chairman’s XI attack of only moderate quality, not one of England’s top six managed to impose himself properly in pleasant batting conditions. Captain Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen were rested but the poor form continued in their absence.
One reading of Ballance’s elevation to No3 is that a place in the Test team is his to lose. With Bairstow keeping wicket and made to wait until the fall of the fifth wicket before he batted, it is clear the England management were keen to take a proper look at Ballance. Stokes’ brisk bowling and aggressive work at the crease would give England greater flexibility, but doubts remain about whether, at this stage of his career, he is proficient enough with ball or bat to play at Test level.
Ballance was the only England player to pass 50 as they declared at 212 for seven, an attempt to earn another opportunity to bat in this two-day game. At the close, the Chairman’s XI were 16 without loss after 10 overs.
The view of one Australian spectator reflected the reality. “ These Poms aren’t setting the world on fire, are they?” remarked the man in question to his pal as they queued for a hot dog. It was impossible to offer a contradiction.
It is hard to judge the significance of Ballance’s contribution under circumstances that are so different from those which England will face when they travel south. Against the backdrop of the MacDonnell Ranges, and with the atmosphere at Traeger Park similar to a festival day at a county ground, this was as far away from the hostility of the Gabba in Brisbane as it was possible to be.
Still, though, the England XI, led by Ian Bell, could not get their act together. Joe Root, a strong contender to take Trott’s spot at No3 in Adelaide, opened the innings with Michael Carberry; neither man could make a convincing impression.
Carberry had made only six before he chipped to midwicket, and Root chased a wide delivery and was caught in the gully for 22. At that stage, England were 35 for two and, perhaps, suddenly grateful for the weakened attack they were facing. South Australian paceman Kane Richardson and Queensland bowler Alister McDermott were withdrawn from the original squad as both were required by their states for the domestic Sheffield Shield competition
Sent in at No3, Ballance took his time to construct his innings, rarely looking troubled against seamers Josh Lalor, Jayde Herrick and Simon Mackin. He was joined by Matt Prior, whose promotion to No4 for this match did not signal a change in fortunes. Prior has not made a half-century in Tests since the tour of New Zealand last spring and here, he attacked from the start.
One loose cut shot only just cleared cover point before Prior pushed forward to a delivery from Mackin and was caught behind by Jake Doran, the 16-year-old wicketkeeper-batsman included in this squad by Cricket Australia.
Prior badly needs runs. He might even be pushed further up the order in the second innings after this latest failure, although it is not as though the others’ form is much better. Stokes, another contender for the No6 spot next week, had just started to assert himself when he, too, departed.
After hitting the off-spin of Ashton Turner for successive fours down the ground, Stokes was superbly caught at short leg off the same bowler, and the wickets kept falling. Ballance reached his fifty before he was run out attempting a single that was never really available, while Bell was undone when Mackin found some extra bounce and was caught behind.
It says much about England’s batting display that their highest partnership of the innings was built by the seventh-wicket pair of Bairstow and Graeme Swann. No doubt delighted not to have to deal with Mitchell Johnson’s short-pitched missiles, Swann went on the attack and made an entertaining 29 from 36 deliveries.