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.