UnBallanced? The curious case of England’s unpopular batsman

Mike Atherton. Nasser Hussain. Mike Gatting. Allan Lamb. Four top England batsman of the recent past. Granted, they weren’t in the best England teams, but if you had those four in your top six, you would have few complaints.

But what do they all have in common? Well, they all average less than 39.25 in Test matches. That seems like an arbitrary number to judge them on (although it’s close to 40, which was always the benchmark for a top career), but 39.25 is the current Test career average of one Gary Simon Ballance. Yorkshire’s left-hander may have had a stinking tour of Bangladesh – 24 runs at a sparking average of 6.00, with a top score of nine – but the bloke still averages nearly 40.

So that makes the fact that many England fans – myself included – want him gone by the start of the series in India this week a touch odd. All the best players have a bad run of form, but often stats like those Ballance – four hundreds and seven fifties in 21 Tests – mean a player should be stuck with.

But Ballance – who also must rile journalists on a regular basis thanks to Word’s autocorrect – doesn’t seem to have much in the bank. He started off quite well, but for me I don’t think he’s ever looked convincing at the crease. His recall in the summer didn’t seem to make a lot of sense – he wasn’t exactly scoring barrel loads of runs for the all-conquering Yorkshire – and he didn’t back it up with his performances against Pakistan.

Yet come the end of the series, a lot of experts put him ahead of the likes of James Vince and Alex Hales – who also struggled – saying he looked “assured” and “worth another chance”. He went back to Yorkshire, with Trevor Bayliss calling on all batsmen in the county game to step up in the final weeks of the season, but despite continuing his uninspiring form, he was still on the plane to Bangladesh.

It seemed likely that he wouldn’t play, with young gun Haseeb Hameed and Ben Duckett both ready to make their debuts. But when it came around, Duckett opened, and there sat Ballance at four. He probably wasn’t helped by the fact he was in so early in all but one innings, but, oddly, on the one occasion he did go in a bit later, he got out to an absolute horror of a shot, the sort that even I (season average 17.78, Kent Village League Division Four) wouldn’t come up with.

I have no idea why I just can’t take to Ballance as an England batsman. It’s not the fact he was born in Zimbabwe – we’ve had more than our fair share of African top-order men in recent years. I can’t even say it’s about his personality – I’ve seldom seemed him interviewed, but he’s probably not the dullest we’ve had. His stats aren’t too bad either, but it’s just that he never looks at all comfortable. I don’t think he’s the sort of man who is regularly going to score big tons, his stroke play isn’t dashing and I don’t think opposing attacks will fear him.

England’s batting in Bangladesh was a big issue. They need to find more stability, and Ballance doesn’t seem to be the man to do it.

So what’s the option? The previously mooted Hameed opening with Duckett at four is my preference, especially with the current number four (whose name I’m now officially fed up of typing – it does have a double L, Microsoft) not an option.

Sadly, I fear it’s not going to matter a lot – I fully expect England to get walloped in India – but going forward we need to find the right balance in our batting. And I don’t think Gary is the right bal(l)ance for this task.



The turkeys voted for a T20 Christmas

I’ve long been against the idea of a city-based T20 tournament in this country.

And oddly, since it was voted for by a staggering 15 out of the 18 counties, I’ve found even more evidence as to why it’s a terrible idea.

I shall try not to make this too ranty – I racked up 1100 words* on this topic in a column at my old job, and I’d definitely link to that now had their online archive not disappeared.

But the basic fact is that this new-fangled T20 tournament, which was voted in earlier this month, is going to put county cricket in severe danger.

The attitude of pundits connected to counties at Test grounds is very clouded to say the least – Michael Vaughan in particular keeps banging on about how cricket in this country NEEDS this new league.

So, to clarify, the T20 system that produced this year’s finalists in the World Cup, NEEDS improving. The argument that it “works in India and Australia” doesn’t wash with me either. The IPL is brilliant. For me, the Big Bash is even better. But does that mean we need to replicate it? No.

Australia’s cricketing landscape is so different from ours. They have six first-class teams, competing for the Sheffield Shield. When they created the Big Bash, they added two more, an extra one each in Sydney and Melbourne. Apparently, 65% of the population of Australia live in the vicinity of these eight teams.

We have 18 counties. The new league is set to have eight teams too – based at Test grounds, although it is not clear yet which of the nine will miss out. The stats say that 25% of the population live around those nine grounds. So instead of the mass-market appeal that those in favour bang on about, we’re actually reducing the appeal to a smaller market.

I always use Warwickshire as my example here. They struggle to sell out their T20 games, even when they changed their name to the Birmingham Bears. They hardly seem to be turning crowds away in international fixtures either. But why should the counties like Somerset, Worcestershire and my team, Kent, have to suffer because their marketing isn’t up to scratch?

I saw all but two of Kent’s home games in this year’s T20 Blast, with packed houses. In the new competition, there won’t be any games in Kent. Yes, the Blast will still be running as well, but you cannot tell me that it won’t become a second-rate competition. The big names – Gayle, McCullum et al from abroad and maybe even the home-based stars like Buttler and Root may well find it hard to be interested in a secondary contest when the big bucks are waved in front of their faces.

Which brings us to the subject of money. And the article that inspired this blog tonight. Hampshire chief Rod Bransgrove today shared his thoughts on the competition, and given his county are one of those expected to be hosts, it’s no surprise that he’s in favour. That the counties had been bribed into the decision was not really news – around £1.3m each is the figure – the confirmation that the host counties will be raking in around £500k on top of that was the killer for me.

Two division cricket is a great idea, but it has led to teams with money having success. The nine-team top division of 2016 contained eight of the sides whose base is an international ground. It’s not a clear fix – Durham’s much-publicised financial issues (with more quotes from the beloved Mr Bransgrove which make him look like a real decent chap) illustrate that – but it helps.

So the smaller counties are up against it in that aspect. There is no doubt that the £1.3m will be a lifeline for some, but when everyone is getting it, it’s not going to close the gap, is it? And in fact, with the extra HALF A BLOODY MILLION QUID on top, the financial chasm is only going to widen.

Kent – along with Sussex and Surrey – were one of the three to vote against the new league. They see the value in their brands, their future and their own fans. Kent’s CEO Jamie Clifford has taken a club from near-oblivion to a sound financial footing. It can be done without selling your soul.

I hope I’m wrong, but three years of this city-based league – “not a franchise” as another Test-ground connected pundit, David Lloyd, frequently points out – could well be enough to eliminate some counties, counties who are producing players to play at the highest level in both white and red-ball cricket for England.

The short-term impact may look positive, but there’s no way I can see this league benefiting anyone other than the Test ground money men in the long run.

* – Just the 815 then. Plus these ones…