Middlesex v Yorkshire, Lord's, 3rd day April 29, 2014

Ballance sends powerful message


Middlesex 123 and 230 for 1 (Rogers 122*, Robson 77) need a further 242 to beat Yorkshire 178 and 416 (Ballance 130, Root 63, Lyth 54, Finn 4-89)

As each round of Championship games progresses, so another piece slots in to the jigsaw for Peter Moores and co. An England Test line-up that looked as uncertain as at any time in history a few weeks ago is gradually staring to come together. Arguably only injury will change the first-choice XI at this stage.

Whereas in earlier rounds the likes of Chris Jordan made their claim, over recent days it has become ever more likely that Sam Robson and Gary Ballance will fill the batting vacancies.

While Ballance's likely inclusion at No. 5 is not ideal - it may well force Ian Bell or, more realistically, Joe Root to bat at No. 3 - it is becoming almost impossible to suppress his inevitable rise. If Ben Stokes, Stuart Broad and Matt Prior are fit and Moeen Ali, perhaps batting as low as No. 8, is picked as the spinner (he has taken 88 first-class wickets at 31.10 apiece since the start of 2012), England have their side.

It is a shame to dwell on such matters when this game between Middlesex and Yorkshire, a fine encounter that has fluctuated in fortune each day, deserves attention in its own right. It has been an excellent advert for the quality and entertainment offered by county cricket. But if the county game exists to serve the England team - and that is certainly a key function - then it is probably wise to keep an eye on the bigger picture.

There may also not be quite as many opportunities to compete for a Test place as had been thought, either. It is likely that several of the participants in this match could be withdrawn from the next round of Championship matches to prepare for international duty.

The England squad for the ODI against Scotland is currently scheduled to be announced on Thursday and will meet for white-ball training sessions at Loughborough next Tuesday and Wednesday. While that would allow squad members to play the first two days of the next round of games - they could be substituted under the Championship competition regulations at the halfway stage - it does mean that their opportunities to impress the selectors in the red-ball game will be limited. The international season is, these days, almost endless.

It seems all but certain that Ballance's days as a county player are numbered. While no young player comes with guarantees, Ballance has the record, the hunger, the technique and the temperament to suggest that he will play at the highest level with distinction.

While a first-class average of 54.42 might be mitigated, partially anyway, by some success at a modest standard in Zimbabwe, it is harder to explain away the fact that he is the only man playing Division One cricket to have scored more than 1,500 Championship runs since the start of 2013 or that he has 406 runs already this season. He has scored four centuries in his last seven Championship matches.

Equally, there is the evidence of his strokeplay. While the final part of this innings came against modest bowling - Neil Dexter and Ollie Rayner were thrashed for the majority of the tenth-wicket stand of 66 in five-and-a-half overs - the power and range of stroke exhibited by Ballance was reminiscent of Kevin Pietersen at a similar stage of his career.

Ballance thumped 56 off 21 balls during that partnership, including five sixes and four fours, with one Rayner delivery slog-swept over the grandstand and out of Lord's and one fairly respectable Dexter delivery picked up and deposited over square leg in a manner that would have pleased Viv Richards.

Besides, Ballance had earned the right to such luxuries. By demonstrating the restraint and technique required to survive Middlesex's fine trio of mainline seamers earlier in his innings, he had worn down the attack and played himself in. By the time he late cut to third man - becoming Tim Murtagh's 500th first-class wicket in the process - he had helped his team set an improbable 472 for victory.

Only once have Yorkshire conceded more to lose a first-class match, when a Peter Trego-inspired Somerset made 479 for 6 at Taunton in 2009. While Cambridge University once chased 507 to win here against MCC in 1896, the highest successful chase by Middlesex at Lord's is 366 for 5 against Sussex in 1926.

But an opening stand of 181 in 38.4 overs has given them a chance. Chris Rogers, positive from the start, rushed to a century at almost a run a ball, driving crisply and proving merciless off his legs, while Robson survived a nervous start to lend increasingly assured support. The Yorkshire attack, so impressive the previous day, allowed their desire to get the better of them just a little and erred in both line and length on a pitch that has slowed in pace and eased in character, but still offers bowlers encouragement.

Robson might have gone without scoring. Drawn into prodding outside off stump, he edged low to slip off Jack Brooks where the ball appeared to not quite reach Adam Lyth, before settling in to play an innings full of the cuts and back-foot drives that may well become familiar to spectators of Test cricket over the coming years. He is not, at this stage, the complete player, and was eventually drawn into pushing at one he could have left to end the partnership but, as England look to the future, it is proving hard to ignore him.

There is, at some stage, a legitimate debate to be had about the reason players developed in Australia and southern Africa, in particular, appear to mature more quickly than those brought up only in England - the lack of cricket in state schools is surely a huge issue - but in Ballance and Robson, England have two 24-year-olds from southern climes who could serve them for much of the next decade.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dean on April 30, 2014, 17:41 GMT

    If we are talking about an XI for the 1st test then I will throw my selection in, Cook, Robson,Taylor,Bell,Ballance,Prior,Stokes,Borthwick,Broad,Jordan,Anderson. Im not convinced SR is a natural partner for AC but given his weight of runs over the past year for Mid & the Lions he deserves an opportunity. In terms of other options I would keep an eye on Vince & there is also still a case for Compton. JT also deserves his chance & he seems to have the temperament to bat 3.GB didn't shine on tour over the winter but then no1 really did, however he had an excellent season in 13 & has started 14 in the same fashion. It's too soon for Buttler so I would give Prior another go, a young looking side should also benefit from his experience. The spin department is bare, I suspect we will need to go back to Monty for the ind series but I would give SB these 2 tests to his experience at the end of the ashes. Both CJ & Finn have started well but I would prefer to give SF a bit more time with Mid.

  • Ian on April 30, 2014, 13:33 GMT

    There seem to be umpteen England XI being posted on here which I guess underlines the difficult discussions the selectors may face in due course. Whilst many of the posts will give compelling cases for each of their picks, those being chosen based on early season should also be measured against what they did and under what circumstances, which will be a measure of much needed temperament to play at test level. Selections that are nailed on for me are Balance & Bell (players "in possession" and based on volume of runs scored against decent attacks), Compton (based on runs scored in testing conditions at Durham & Sussex against strong bowling attacks), Cook (purely because he is Captain, but also because he has scored runs all be it against weaker bowling), Anderson, Jordan based on form and wickets taken and Stokes for his ashes team. For me the Opening bat, Wicket keeper, extra pace bowler and spinner/4th bowler are still up for grabs - with Root and/or Ali poor spin options !

  • Rob on April 30, 2014, 12:40 GMT

    So George's line-up is Cook, Robson, Root, Bell, Ballance, Moeen, Stokes, Prior, Broad, Jordan, Anderson

    For me, the 13 would also include Onions and Tredwell.

  • Chris on April 30, 2014, 12:06 GMT

    Alastair Cook certainly "has a test record to fall back on" for those of us with good memories, but we can hope his Aussie travails are behind him now. The best batsman should be at three, and that's Ian Bell, with Root at four if he proves his full fitness. I'd keep an eye on Vince though for one of the forthcoming series. Ballance has developed his game a lot since the fairly stodgy and pedestrian player I saw three seasons ago and he deserves a go. But Moen Ali?? I know we are short of a top class spinner but I wouldn't be looking there. And the Finn or Jordan argument will keep us all checking the scorecards for a week or two. If you go for the man in real form it should be Finn but...........

  • Ian on April 30, 2014, 11:40 GMT

    Some good young players coming through, time to just go with them and give it 18 months. My team for Sri Lanka would be as follows:

    Cook Robson Bell Root Ballance Ali Stokes Buttler Broad Finn Anderson

  • Peter on April 30, 2014, 10:26 GMT

    @ freddiyforPM

    So you're going to leave out Finn (the leading wicket taker in the 1st division this year) for a part time spinner in Ali who takes wickets at an average of over 40 in the 2nd division?

    This is May in England we're talking about not summer in some spin paradise like India

    I'm not sure what some of you have been drinking but spin isn't going to play any part in May and even if it did then surely there's someone better than Ali who takes wickets at over 40 in division 2

  • Dummy4 on April 30, 2014, 10:15 GMT

    I would throw James Taylor into the mix as well; just the kind of grafting, improvisational player England have been missing for a while.

  • Jem on April 30, 2014, 10:07 GMT

    For matches v Sri Lanka in early summer: Cook, Robson, Bell, Root, Ballance, Ali, Stokes, Prior, Woakes, Broad and Anderson. No full time spinner required but two excellent young part-timers in Ali and Rot who wil hopefully only improve with experience like this. Only concern is that Bell simply must make this transition to number 3 which most feel (including himself) that he's capable of doing. The earlier concerns about losing his runs are massively mitigated now with a tail of Prior, Woakes and Broad at 8, 9 and 10. May need a frontline spinner later in the summer, by which time hopefully Kerrigan will have shown real form. Under Peter Moores, I don't see him cracking in his next Test.

  • Derek on April 30, 2014, 9:40 GMT

    Southern hemisphere players play on faster and bouncier wickets from an early age and therefore are better equipped to play first class cricket along with the fact that club and school cricket is much stronger testing players earlier in their careers.O n the other hand English wickets are slow and low making the ability to play off the back foot almost unnecessary and club and school cricket is in comparison tame. Consequently, even at test level English players struggle to play off the back foot on faster bouncier without setting themselves to do so. In doing so front foot play is compromised. This we saw in this last Ashes series where only Bell looked to be able to play forward or back confidently and properly. Robson has had the benefit of learning his cricket in Australia and England but importantly he has been coached in such a way that he is ready for test cricket. That is he can play equally well off the front and back foot something entirely necessary at test level.

  • Peter on April 30, 2014, 9:08 GMT

    I am reluctant to put Vince in my team despite his form. He plays in Division 2 and I don't agree with having players from division 2 in the England team. Yes I know Cook plays in Div 2 but Cook has a test match record to fall back on, players like Vince don't.

    Still he's flying high as the leading scorer in Div 2 and maybe deserves a shot.

    I also notice that there has been little mention of Finn despite him being the leading wicket taker so far this year in Division 1.

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