It would be a trifle ungrateful to suggest that the recent long-term occupant of the England No 3 position is now referred to as Jonathan Who. Jonathan Trott, for it was he, played too stoutly and was too prolific for too long to be forgotten lightly.
But the resplendent form of Gary Ballance this summer demonstrates how quickly sport moves on. England have missed neither Trott nor – whisper it quietly – Kevin Pietersen. In the five Tests so far, England have three times passed 400 in the first innings, a feat they managed only once in the previous 16 matches.
Ballance has scored three hundreds and two fifties. His average at three is 75.38, which is the realm inhabited by Ken Barrington. That figure is bound to come down eventually – the game will insist – but Ballance’s statistics reflect the coolly pragmatic way he has taken to an unfamiliar role in an unfamiliar environment.
Everyone expected Ballance to be picked for a newly shaped team at the start of the summer, but few imagined he would be asked to come in at three. It is the blue riband position of batsmanship, which can yield glory but is not for the glory boys. It takes a natural toll, demanding as it does the virtues of an opener and the attributes of a strokeplayer.
The list of those who have done it more than 30 times could be taken from the front of the manual of players touched with stardust: Wally Hammond, Peter May, Bill Edrich, Ken Barrington, David Gower, Ted Dexter. More recently in the era of continuity and heavy schedules, Mark Butcher, Nasser Hussain and Trott have brought a steadfast resolve to the role.
Ballance may be somewhere in between. He knows how to grind and accumulate but he can move rapidly through the gears as well. The longer he is in, the more he gets on with it. His exemplary 156 in England’s first innings in the third Test at Southampton needed 107 balls for its first 50, 82 for its second.
“I hadn’t thought about it,” he said at Old Trafford today as the England team gathered for the fourth Investec Test. “I thought if I did get selected it would be in the middle order, but when I got a phone call saying ‘Would you bat three?’ it was just a natural reaction, ‘Of course, I’d love to bat there’. I’d batted three in the one-dayers so it’s not that new to me,” he added. “It’s a different format but I felt like I’d found good nick, although I didn’t get the big score I wanted. I’ve batted three for Yorkshire seconds, but it’s a different level obviously. I was not going to say no and I’m pleased to have done well.
“I’ve always been a patient batter, then tried to up the game a bit as the innings has gone on. The way it’s gone, that’s how I’ve had to play, you have to be patient early on.
“When you get told by the coaches that they back you to bat there it’s a massive confidence boost. Trotty has done an unbelievable job for the last four or five years, scoring runs for fun, so it was big shoes to fill. They wanted Ian Bell at four to kind of split the youngsters up.”
It was arguably the bravest call by Peter Moores, the returning coach, when he was searching for someone to take over from Trott, who had been forced to leave the frontline in Australia last winter with a stress-related illness. Ballance had been batting at five for Yorkshire, which is probably the most comfortable for the specialist batsman. He deduced that Ballance had the necessary attributes to move higher and backed his judgement.
Perhaps Bell, veteran of 100 Test matches, was the more obvious option but Ballance has fulfilled every hope and expectation. Moreover, he has done it recently after making a splash in the tabloids.
After the match at Trent Bridge, now a cause célèbre for an entirely different reason, Ballance and a few of the other England players went for a knees-up in a Nottingham nightclub. Ballance, the worse for wear, was photographed with his shirt off, which he was waving above his head. It was no more than boys being boys in the 21st century but it looked a little excessive for an England cricketer. Ballance, born and brought up in Zimbabwe and an old boy of Harrow School where he went when the family emigrated, was mortified.
“When I turned up at Lord’s I was a bit nervous and a bit embarrassed to be honest. I had just played in a Test match at Trent Bridge and I wanted to celebrate. I have to move on from it – and it might have been good for me because I felt under a bit of pressure coming into that game and put in a good performance and proved some people wrong.”
Alastair Cook, his captain, took Ballance and one of his fellow clubbers, Joe Root, out to dinner, along with veteran wicketkeeper Matt Prior. He did not read the riot act but he reminded his young charges that they should not perhaps do it again.
Ballance likes to let his hair down occasionally – “but not in a stupid way, I can’t remember ever doing that before”. He responded by scoring a hundred, his second in successive Tests at Lord’s, as his colleagues all fell cheaply. It showed something else about him. He was embarrassed, he felt he had let the side down but he was damned if he was going to let it affect his performance.
“It was after a Test, we had a few days off and you could go and have a drink and I probably had one too many,” he said. “I was nervous what my parents would think but they were very understanding. I think they framed one of the pictures.”
Ballance stands out from the conventional modern cricketer, being sturdy of build and rubicund of face. He is reserved (except it seems in Nottingham nightclubs) and slow to rouse. He showed no emotion when twice being the object of incorrect umpiring decisions last week in Southampton (though he assures it was different in the dressing room). He looks here to stay. He has shown that England can be rebuilt.
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