Ballance shows poise to rebuild Yorkshire
Yorkshire 346 for 6 (Ballance 98*, Lees 69, Robinson 3-67, Jordan 3-67) v Sussex Scorecard
A year ago Gary Ballance and Chris Jordan were toasting the crowd after the Oval Test. Both had been integral in the turnaround series victory against India: Ballance with his adhesiveness and bottom-handed accumulation; Jordan with his sprightly pace bowling and vivacious presence in the field.
They have not had much cause to cheer in the 12 months since. A side strain rendered Jordan unavailable for the Ashes, though he had already lost his Test place after underwhelming performances in the Caribbean. Ballance's descent, from phlegmatic No.3 to Ashes discard after two Test, was altogether more surprising; his only part in the celebrations after the urn was regained was speaking to the squad on FaceTime.
Less than four months ago, Ballance scored 331 runs in six Test innings in the Caribbean. But the pace and late swing of Australia and New Zealand combined to slice and dice his technique open; a compact and well-organised Test match game gave way to porous defence and ponderous foot movement.
The upshot was a return to Yorkshire - not at 3, but in his old county position at No. 5. In the month since trudging off at Lord's, Ballance has made two half-centuries in the Royal London One Day Cup, but his return to first-class cricket against Durham at Scarborough brought only 11 runs across two innings.
So it would have been cathartic had Ballance reached his 26th first-class century in the final over of the day at Hove. It looked as if he would have five balls to do so, but a routine misfield at mid-off allowed Tim Bresnan to return for two, and deprived Ballance of a chance to add the two runs he needed to bring up his first century in any cricket since making 122 at Antigua in April.
No matter. If Ballance's was an imperfect innings with rather jittery beginnings, it was also testament to the resilience and tenacity of this cricketer. After being dropped by England he had vowed that he would have the confidence not to remodel his game. He has remained true to his word and, in an era of stultifying over-analysis, that shows a certain courage.
It was an innings defined by the usual Ballance trademarks: leaving diligently outside off stump, and shuffling across his stumps to chisel anything straight through the leg side. His drive was kept hidden away, like a very expensive wine, but was uncorked as his confidence grew in the evening sunshine.
Ballance had earned the right to showcase his more expansive side after withstanding a ferocious spell from Jordan at the start of his innings. When England completed their victory over India at The Oval last year, Ballance scored 64, and Jordan took 7 for 50 in the game. Now both were attempting to remind the selectors of their merits ahead of the trip to the UAE.
Jordan resolved to remind Ballance of his travails against Antipodean opposition, harassing him outside off stump and throwing in bouncers and several yorkers in an attempt to disturb his equilibrium. Several times Ballance was late on the ball, but just about managed to protect his stumps from harm. With his feet stubbornly refusing to move, Ballance did not resemble a man who should be playing a higher level of the game.
Yet what mattered is that, somehow, he survived. After taking an hour to score his first boundary, a shovel through the covers off Steve Magoffin, Ballance surreptitiously gained fluency. And Yorkshire, too, highlighted why they are sauntering to the title: reduced to 22 for 2 after Jordan's athletic caught-and-bowled off Jack Leaning and later 134 for 4, they ended the day with Ballance and Tim Bresnan looking utterly unperturbed.
While Jordan posed a regular threat, albeit a wayward one - a ten-ball over included Adil Rashid edging an away-swinger behind - Oli Robinson was no less testing. He bowled with hostility, bounce and swing up the slope, and managed to eschew Jordan's erraticism: the two both returned figures of 3 for 67, but Robinson bowled nine more overs. He even had time to showcase two overs of very passable offspin. More importantly, Robinson earned the respect of his old team.
"He can bowl this fella. He's got some pace I tell you," Yorkshire President Dickie Bird purred watching Robinson in action. "Why did we let him go?" A year ago Robinson, the stepson of Paul Farbrace, was sacked by Yorkshire on account of "a number of unprofessional actions". He was reckoned to have a slack attitude: he had missed too many training sessions and been too slapdash in his timekeeping. Once, selected for a T20 game at Chesterfield, he turned up at Derby instead.
Evidently the geography of the South coast has proved less of a challenge. Like Chris Jordan, James Anyon and Mushtaq Ahmed before him, Robinson has been reinvigorated at Sussex: 44 Championship wickets at just under 25 apiece have emphatically vindicated Sussex's faith.
Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts