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Gary Ballance, a young left-hander with a Zimbabwean lilt could be asked to solve one of England's more enduring problems: the No. 6 Test spot.
September 24, 2013
English cricket has a lot to thank Zimbabwe for. The two coaches most responsible for transforming England into one of the best teams in the world over the last decade and a half, Duncan Fletcher and Andy Flower, hardened their characters and honed their philosophies in southern Africa and now another young leftie with a Zimbabwean lilt could be asked to solve one of the more enduring problems within the current set-up: the No. 6 Test spot.
Gary Ballance, of Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Mid West Rhinos and, some years ago, Zimbabwe Under-19s, was the Ashes bolter who caught the eye when England's squad to tour Australia was announced. A powerful batsman, the 23-year-old has been capped once by his adoptive country - making a two-ball duck in the ODI against Ireland earlier this month - having qualified through residency, and could become England's first Test debutant in Australia since the Lancashire wicketkeeper, Warren Hegg, in 1998.
It is often said that a strong Yorkshire makes for a strong England, and Ballance played a full part in the county's tilt at the title this year, scoring 995 Championship runs so far as they secured second. He may not have mastered the accent but Ballance will happily band together with his friends, team-mates and fellow tourists, Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow, in England's young Yorkie club.
"I've played at Yorkshire for four to five years, I don't think you get more English than that," was his unequivocal response to being asked about his allegiances. "I feel 100 percent English."
There will be those that prickle at the claim, as well as England's recruitment of another foreign-born player to their ensemble. Indeed, upon announcing the Ashes squad the national selector, Geoff Miller, had to defend the selection of yet another player drawn from non-English roots.
But Ballance was not inveigled away from his homeland. Like soon-to-be team-mates Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott, who both came through the South African system, he left with a clear goal in mind.
Born in Harare to parents who ran a tobacco farm, Ballance played several sports but knew early on that a career in cricket might be more fruitful - and stable - overseas. A family contact, in the form of the former Zimbabwe captain and coach Dave Houghton, then in charge at Derbyshire, was able to assist. Houghton is married to a cousin of Ballance's father and was happy to be involved in bringing the teenager to England, putting him up for a period before he took up a sports scholarship at Harrow.
"His father and mother came to see us on one of my trips back to Zimbabwe," Houghton recalls. "I knew Gary was a decent player, we're quite close as a family. They said to us, 'He's 15, what do you suggest we do? He wants to play cricket as a profession and he's got a British passport' I said, if he can get to England, we'll happily look after him."
Ballance described his Ashes inclusion as being "quite a shock" and his parents, who are currently in England, were the first to be told. Their farm was among the many confiscated by the Zimbabwe government, shortly after Ballance left home, but they remain in Zimbabwe and involved in the farming industry, making periodic visits to watch their son play.
Asked about the challenges of starting a new life in another country at such a young age, Ballance answers with a clear-eyed sense of purpose. "I don't think it was as hard as people might think, it was in the interests of my career and wanting to play cricket," he says. "It came down to that. I knew if I wanted to play cricket that England would be the best place to do it. I got help from my parents, when I came over here I got a lot of help from Dave Houghton and that made the decision a lot easier.
"Since I moved over it's been my dream to play for England. I moved to Yorkshire, to the academy there, they've treated me very well and I've had a great time there. I've always dreamed of the opportunity and I'm really looking forward to it."
|A solid, muscular presence, Ballance looks like a bit like a svelte Rob Key and has a similarly cheery disposition, indicating there will not be any animosity should he and Bairstow, a one-time room-mate, end up in competition to bat at No. 6.|
Observant Sky Sports viewers would have caught a glimpse of the future in 2007, when Ballance smashed a century for Derbyshire club side Ockbrook and Borrowash in the televised national T20 cup, and it wasn't long before he attracted the attention of a bigger county in Yorkshire, whose academy he joined at the end of that year.
Ballance learned his cricket in Zimbabwe, where he went to the independent Peterhouse boarding school, and his batting idol was Sachin Tendulkar rather than Michael Atherton or Graham Thorpe (though Michael Vaughan's personal Ashes mirabilis of 2002-03 made an impression). He returned in 2010-11 and 2011-12 to further his development in the first-class Logan Cup competition but has since become one of England's track-suited, talent-identification generation, through the Lions and Performance Programme squads.
He impressed with the Lions in Australia over the winter, his only previous visit to the country, and although his one-day debut "didn't go as well as I'd hoped", he has now overleapt the likes of James Taylor and Ravi Bopara for Test selection.
A solid, muscular presence, Ballance looks like a bit like a svelte Rob Key and has a similarly cheery disposition, indicating there will not be any animosity should he and Bairstow, a one-time room-mate, end up in competition to bat at No. 6.
And what of his prospects if called upon to fill the position, which has chewed up numerous candidates since Paul Collingwood's retirement three winters ago? Could Ballance provide just that and offer Flower, England's made-in-Zimbabwe coach, a made-in-Zimbabwe solution? Houghton has further words of encouragement.
"His business is scoring runs. When he gets in, he gets hundreds and he has got hundreds at every level he's played at - plenty of them. And I don't expect that to change once he gets into Test cricket."
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets hereFeeds: Alan Gardner
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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