May 5, 2020
George DobellSenior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo
There are moments when being a journalist feels a little like being a dentist. It’s not years of training or great pay that we have in common – there really isn’t much shared ground there – it’s more the sense that some people fear you and, even when you’re trying to help, there is a fair chance you’ll inflict pain. “This question’s going to hurt a bit.”
So it is with interviewing Gary Ballance. It is not that he is anything other than unfailingly polite and good-humoured – he’s impeccable in both regards – it is that there is a sense, at times, that you are making him relive traumatic experiences.
The thing is, Ballance should, right now, be England’s rock. He turned 30 in November and his record, in county cricket at least, is exceptional. He reckons he is playing better than ever. These should be his peak year.
The stats are striking. For example, since 2013 only seven men have scored 5000-plus runs in the County Championship; of those seven, only three average 40 (Ballance, Rory Burns and Chris Dent). Ballance, with an average of 46.67, leads the way. In the shorter term, since 2017, only Burns has scored more Championship runs.
Last season, only Dom Sibley scored more Division One runs than Ballance. Nobody scored more than his five centuries. Whichever way you look at it, over whatever time frame, Ballance has a record that suggests he is among the best England-qualified batsmen of his era.
His Test record is decent, too. He scored four Test centuries in his first nine Tests, reaching 1000 runs in his 17th innings; only Herbert Sutcliffe and Len Hutton have done so quicker for England. Even he now averages 37.45 at that level. That’s higher than Mike Gatting, Nasser Hussain and Allan Lamb and almost identical to Mike Atherton.
So why isn’t he playing at the highest level?
Well, his record fell away sharply. After ten Tests he averaged 67.93. But in 12 Tests from the start of the 2015 English season, he averaged 19.04 with two half-centuries from 23 innings. England moved on.
One theory is that he was found out by top-quality bowling, especially left-arm pace. And it’s true, he was dismissed three times in four innings by Trent Boult in the 2015 series against New Zealand. He was bowled three times in that series, too. Two Ashes Tests later, having been bowled once more by Mitchell Johnson, he was dropped.
Another theory suggests that his confidence, once eroded, never recovered. The self-doubt that can plague even the best, ate away at him and caused irreparable damage. The selectors, seeing that, didn’t want to subject him to the torture of going through it all again. Those two theories aren’t necessarily in conflict with one another.
Yet Ballance has gone back to county cricket and dominated. In an era when pitches and balls conspire to make top-order batting fiendishly tough, he continues to plunder attacks in a manner few can match. With England currently relying on a No. 3 in Joe Denly, who is three-and-a-half years older than Ballance – and who hasn’t made a century in his 14 Tests – you would think there was still hope for a man with such a record. He batted at No. 3 throughout last year.
Or is he in the realm once occupied by Mark Ramprakash? An undisputed giant of the county game, it won’t matter how many more runs he scores, because the selectors have come to a conclusion.
“Being dropped makes you feel insecure… You don’t feel you belong in the same way. It took a long time to come out the other side of that”
“I’m flattered by the comparison with Ramps,” Ballance says. “He was one of the best I’ve seen. I see that as a very positive comparison.
“If I didn’t play for England again, I’d be quite satisfied with the career I’ve had. Don’t get me wrong: I’d love to play again. But I get a lot of satisfaction out of scoring runs for Yorkshire. There are a lot of good attacks in Division One. Scoring runs isn’t at all easy. So I see that as a massive challenge. If I can help Yorkshire win games, I’m satisfied.”
Perhaps the pivotal moment in his career came when he was dropped by England for the first time. He was still averaging 47.76, and it was only one game since he had made a crucial half-century. In an era of consistency of selection, it seems an oddly knee-jerk reaction.
He made 61 in the first Test of the Ashes series in Cardiff in 2015. It wasn’t especially pretty. He took several blows to the body and scored five of his eight boundaries behind square on the off side. But he endured and, with Joe Root (who was dropped on 0), put on 153 for England’s fourth wicket against an excellent seam attack. It was the only century partnership of the game and played a big part in England’s match and series victory.
“I still reckon that 61 was my best innings for England,” Ballance says. “It was tough and I was hit a few times. But when you make runs in those circumstances, it’s even more satisfying. That stand helped us go on and win the game.
“At the time I really felt part of the team. I’d taken on the No. 3 role – a position nobody really wanted and where I’d never batted before in my career – and I’d done all right.
“Then I had my first couple of bad games and I was dropped. I never really felt I struggled against left-armers. I mean, Boult bowled brilliantly in that series, the ball did a bit and I didn’t get any runs. But I didn’t think I had a fundamental problem. I think my record shows I can play left-arm bowlers, pace bowlers and swing bowlers.
“But it was amazing how quickly people seized on things. There was a lot of media attention and as much as you might say you don’t take any notice, it’s hard not to. You do start to believe the criticism. The doubts do creep in. It affects you massively.
“I went back to Yorkshire and I just couldn’t get my head right. Instead of just focusing on the match situation and playing the ball in front of me, I was thinking about my game and thinking about what other people thought. It’s hard enough to score runs without all those other thoughts creeping in.
“Being dropped makes you feel insecure. Even when you’re recalled, you feel you’re looking over your shoulder a bit. You know you’re playing for your place. You don’t feel you belong in the same way I did. It took a long time to come out the other side of that.”
He was recalled a year later, for a run of six Tests batting in the middle order against Pakistan and Bangladesh, before two more appearances back at No. 3 during the South Africa series in 2017. A broken finger ended his involvement, and despite being included on the 2017-18 Ashes tour, he did not get close to the playing XI.
“I did sort of okay when I was recalled against Pakistan in 2016,” he says. “I made a few starts but I didn’t go on and make the big hundred that would have cemented my place in the team. Then we went to Bangladesh and India.
“The conditions in Bangladesh were the toughest I’ve ever faced. I struggled there much more than against New Zealand. We played a warm-up game in Chittagong where the opposition had about seven seamers and we hardly faced a ball of spin.
“Then we came into the Tests. With some balls turning and others skidding on, it seemed every ball was either thudding into my pad or missing my outside edge by a foot. That was the hardest I’ve ever found it.
“I wouldn’t say I was relieved when I was dropped, but I could understand the decision. I accepted it was probably for the best. I was cooked mentally.”
A rumour that circulated at the time suggested Ballance was resistant to change. As a result, the story went, the team management grew frustrated with him. But he insists this is not so.
“That never happened,” Ballance says. “I never had a conversation like that with any coach or selector. They talked to me about trying to put a bit more pressure back on the bowlers – about making sure I put away the bad ball – but there wasn’t any suggestion I should change my technique.”
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He admits he did attempt to make some changes, though. With poor results.
“I tried to get a big stride in,” he says. “But my balance was all over the place and I nicked off more. So then I went back to what I know and what I know can work. I’m never going to be someone who takes a massive stride and I know it can look bad sometimes when I’m out, but I’m trying to play with my head closer to the ball and I think the 2019 season was one of my best so far.
“That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned: you have to be stubborn. Yes, you want to be open to new ideas and you have to want to improve. But you also have to be strong and do what feels right for you. When you’re struggling there are so many voices. So many people offering advice.
“The most successful players – the likes of Alastair Cook – back themselves all the time. They endure tough periods like everyone else, but they come through them. You have to find a balance about being willing to learn but strong enough to stick to your own game.
“One hundred per cent I’m a better player now,” he adds. “I’ve had so many ups and down and I’ve learned from them. Last season was one of my best.”
Were the selectors in touch? “They weren’t,” he says. “But I wouldn’t necessarily expect them to be.”
And this is where the dentistry starts. Just open a little wider… Playing for England again, is that the aim?
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“I’m trying to put that stuff to the back of my head, really,” he says. “If you’re checking your phone every few minutes to see if the selectors have messaged you, you’re not concentrating on the challenge in front of you. In the past, when I’ve thought like that, I’ve not enjoyed the game and I’ve not performed.
“I’d love to play for England again. Of course I would. But of course there are doubts about what I could do or what I could handle. And yes, there have been times when I’ve thought to myself: ‘Do I want it? Do I want to play international cricket again?’ Until you get there, you never know if you can handle it.
“I like to think I’d be fine. And if given a chance, I’d definitely go for it. I’m good to go. But I guess at the back of your head, you never know. As I say, I’m not sure it’s helpful to think about that stuff. In the past, when I’ve been worried, I haven’t enjoyed the game as much.”
And he says he would be happy to bat at No. 3. “I wouldn’t turn it down. In an ideal world, No. 4 or No. 5 is my perfect place to bat. But I’ve batted at No. 3 so often now. It doesn’t make that much difference.”
Beyond England aspirations, Ballance aims to play for “about five more years” before moving into coaching.
“I really enjoy working with the young players at Yorkshire and would like to think I’d have something to offer as a batting coach,” he says. “What sort of coach? I guess more mental. Players have to work out what works for them technically.
“County cricket is still the best gauge to tell if someone is ready for international cricket. But you do have to accept that playing Test cricket – with all the scrutiny and intensity – is completely different to playing Championship cricket. Helping people know what to expect is important, but I’ve been very impressed with the young players who have come into the England team recently. Players like Rory Burns and Dom Sibley. They do things their own way; they seem very well-prepared.”
Was he that well-prepared?
“It’s funny. I was surprised how well I did in those first few Tests. It did give me a bit of confidence, but in some ways I wish I hadn’t started like that. It was quite hard to live up to, you know?”
It has been. But maybe there are a few chapters of the story of Balance’s international career left to be written.
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