Ballance restates England credentials
Yorkshire 328 for 7 (Ballance 117*, Lees 90) v Northamptonshire
Peter Moores may not personally have seen the best of Gary Ballance - the Yorkshire left-hander's highest score in 12 innings against Lancashire, in all cricket, during the Moores' tenure is 57 - but it is fair to assume he will not be going on that evidence alone when he gets to grips, alongside his fellow selectors, with deciding who merits a place in the first England sides of the new era.
Ballance, the Zimbabwe-born left-hander, made his Test debut in Australia, in the final rubber in Sydney, in circumstances that cannot have been easy, given the debacle that had been unfolding while he waited for his chance. He left for his first major tour in the form of his life, having made more than 1300 runs and six centuries in first-class cricket in 2013, and the start of the new season suggests he is none the worse for the experience, however uncomfortable it may have felt.
Ballance looked in supremely good touch, untroubled by the seamers or in the face of a lengthy attempt to tie him down and test his patience by the offspinner, James Middlebrook. He finished on an unbeaten 117, having hit 18 fours in addition to a six pulled into the Western Stand, somewhat disdainfully, off Azharullah, who formed half of a new-ball attack with Maurice Chambers that will not be the worst he comes up against.
He now has 20 first-class centuries from just 71 matches, which is an impressive statistic. Four of these have come in his last five matches on English soil. He finished 2013 with a hundred in each innings against Surrey at The Oval and began this season with another, against Leeds-Bradford MCCU. Jason Gillespie, the Yorkshire coach, says he has "a presence at the crease" and believes one of his strongest qualities is to "play the situation" in all forms of the game.
"He has a real awareness of his game and the game," Gillespie said. "He has an understanding of the game and adaptability to different situations and he finds a way to score runs in any situation, in all forms of the game, which is what a good batsman does."
It was the partnership of 156 between Ballance and Alex Lees that ultimately bent the day heavily in Yorkshire's direction. Having chosen to bat first when Andrew Gale won the toss, reasoning that any difficulties they might face on a damp, cloudy morning would be outweighed by the quality of the batting surface, it was this partnership that justified the decision.
Earlier, they had been 21 for 2, after Adam Lyth and then Kane Williamson failed to make progress. Lyth nicked one that moved away late, Williamson, who had looked tentative, went leg before when only half forward to a ball from Andrew Hall, on as first change, that came back a little.
Gale, whose form this time last year gave cause for concern, looked scratchy again and fell for 13 after lunch, which brought Ballance to the crease at 57 for 3, at which point the bat-first decision began to look increasingly the right one as a Northants attack lacking David Willey, whose back problems mean he cannot bowl, began to toil.
Ballance moved to his half-century in only 63 balls with 44 of those runs in boundaries, three in the space of four balls in one over from Hall. By tea, his partnership with Lees had added 114.
Lees, last year's revelation at the top of the order, made 90 before he became the third of six batsmen dismissed lbw, although it had not been his most fluent innings. Northants missed two chances to get rid of him in quick succession when he was dropped at first slip off Chambers on 50 and was then allowed another escape on 51, against Middlebrook, when he should have been stumped.
Ballance completed his hundred with a flick off his legs for a single off Steven Crook, at which point he had faced 143 deliveries.
Meanwhile, there is positive news of Joe Root, who appears to be moving swiftly towards a comeback following the broken thumb he suffered in March, forcing him to miss the World T20. Restricted until last week to catching practice with a tennis ball, the England batsman had graduated to a cricket ball when he took to the outfield with Yorkshire director of cricket Martyn Moxon during the lunch interval.
A return to action against Middlesex at Lord's next Sunday is on the cards, provided he emerges unscathed from a Second XI friendly scheduled for this week.
His impending return means there is a debate looming for Messrs Gillespie and Moxon over who to leave out to make way for him Root. It would be harsh to omit Lyth, who made 85 and 54 at Taunton last week, albeit on a flat wicket, or Lees. The batsman most at risk, logically, is probably the captain, who therefore needs a score in the second innings.