In front of the watching Kevin Pietersen, Gary Ballance showed there was life after England’s most famous player of recent times with a century of the highest calibre on his first Test appearance at Lord’s.
Pietersen was stationed in one of the hospitality boxes but his presence was overshadowed by Ballance, whose unbeaten 104 – completed with a six of which KP would have been proud – took England from a position of danger at 102 for 5 into one from which they hope to win the game today and take a 1-0 lead over Sri Lanka in the two-match Investec series.
Ballance went on last winter’s disastrous Ashes tour and was one of few players to return from Australia with his reputation enhanced. He played only one Test – the final instalment of the 5-0 whitewash, which took place at Sydney – and acquitted himself well against a hostile attack who were brimming with confidence.
He revealed that the trip had taught him the qualities required to prosper at the highest level. Ballance said: “It was a tough winter. I was 12th man for a few weeks but I learnt a lot. I spent a lot of time working on the short ball, and I learned what was needed to make it as a Test cricketer.”
Ballance was born in Zimbabwe but has been developed in the English county system and has been on the radar of the England selectors for some time.
He has a first-class average of more than 50 and a fine start to this summer with Yorkshire ensured he would get his chance in the first Test. Even though No 3 is an unfamiliar role for him, Ballance looks to have the technique and patience required for Test cricket.
Usually a phlegmatic character, Ballance displayed understandable emotion when he reached his century in the most emphatic possible fashion. There was one over remaining in the day, bowled by Rangana Herath, the artful left-arm spinner. If Ballance was nervous, he was able to hide it as he clubbed the first ball of the six over the ropes at midwicket.
It was a fair reward for his restraint earlier in the day. When England were 102 for 5, it would have been easy for an inexperienced player to lose his mettle.
Ballance, however, never looked as though he would do so. “I knew there was one over to go and I didn’t want to nurdle it around for singles, so I went for the slog sweep and luckily it came out of the middle of the bat,” said the 24-year-old.
“There was a chance of making a hundred before the close and I didn’t want to miss it. I can’t remember bringing up a century with a six before. Even if I have done it, it wouldn’t have felt the same as it did this time.
“My parents and brother flew over from Zimbabwe to watch this game a few days ago, so it was special to score my maiden Test hundred in front of them.”
England closed day four on 267 for 8, a lead of 389, and captain Alastair Cook was expected to declare overnight. The pitch has generally remained true but Ballance is confident the home team can force a win if they start positively today.
The left-hander added: “It’s definitely possible. If we can take a few early wickets and put them under pressure, the pitch is starting to go up and down so that gives us a chance, especially with the bowling we have. We might still have a few overs out there tomorrow, I’m not so sure, but I was definitely looking to get it [a century] this evening.”
Angelo Mathews, the Sri Lanka captain, heaped praise on his bowlers for sticking to their task, but conceded that their chances of victory had disappeared after Ballance’s brilliance.
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