Ballance and Abell: a tale of two captains
Somerset 224 and 101 for 4 need 161 more runs to beat Yorkshire 202 and 283 (Ballance 98*, Handscomb 70, Bess 5-80) lead by 105 runs
Many England fans are still on his case. "Ugly cricketer," they carp about Gary Ballance. In Yorkshire, the criticism is peremptorily waved aside. As far as Yorkshire are concerned, ugly is the new beautiful.
Since he was awarded the Yorkshire captaincy, Ballance has been irrepressible. His unbeaten 98 at Taunton has positioned his side for a victory that, if achieved, would pronounce them Championship contenders and which would deepen Somerset's predicament in the process.
How Somerset must wish they had a batsman like him. Pessimism surfaced in every corner of this intimate ground as they prepared to chase 263. That within 17 overs they succumbed at 49 for 4 was met by black West Country humour, but they finished on 101 for 4 with no further alarm, an engrossing conclusion in the offing.
Steven Patterson took the first three, Dean Elgar to a leg-side strangle, Marcus Trescothick nicked one that straightened from around the wicket, and the poor, put-upon young captain, Tom Abell, lbw for 4 as he pushed forward. James Hildreth was ephemeral, a ghostly figure, there and then gone.
Ballance is a captain who has been around the block. Abell, by everybody's account, is a nice, polite young man, well-thought of, but he gives the impression that he should only go around the block if it is well lit, with CCTV cameras.
Markedly young captains have a better chance of succeeding if they have a bit of arrogance and stubbornness about them. To draw courage from gentleness is never easy. It is to be hoped that the experience is the making of him, but his Championship average of 17 owes much to his unbeaten 71 on a dead final day against Middlesex at Lord's last week.
Ballance, by contrast, now has 727 runs in six Championship matches at 103.85. He has three hundreds, one of them a double. There are two dominant stories in Yorkshire's season: the delightful wicket-taking exploits of a breakthrough fast bowler, Ben Coad, and something altogether earthier, Ballance at the crease, refusing to yield.
When he took the Yorkshire captaincy in the close season, his England ambitions were far from abandoned. It is only last October, against Bangladesh in Dhaka that he played the last of his 21 Tests, but he met such a horrible end, passing 50 only once in his last 14 innings, that a long absence felt inevitable.
Perhaps that absence remains likely. But with both Haseeb Hameed and Keaton Jennings short of runs, the theory that they will fill the top three places alongside Alastair Cook in the first Test against South Africa is not the certainty it once was.
Ballance will never be an elegant batsman, but once again he is a highly effective one. He will never invite purrs of delight, but he draws admiration. While Somerset's spinners, Dom Bess and Jack Leach, worked their way through Yorkshire's order, sharing 4 for 10 in 8.2 overs after lunch, he shored up the innings as reliably as ever. He has become a batsman from the Essentials range, an everyday necessity.
As ever, Ballance prospered square on the offside, enough to spring his detractors into life as they reflect upon his predominantly back-foot style. Judging by Steve Davies' disappointed reaction behind the stumps when he failed to gather a squirted shot, Leach almost dismissed him on 57. Of his two sixes, a skilful ramp to third man off Jamie Overton to move to 98 stood out. Then the innings ended, Ryan Sidebottom agonised to be lbw, his captain's fourth Championship hundred lost.
"Confidence is such a huge thing and I feel really good about my game at the moment," Ballance said. "I don't think too much about stats, but rather concentrate on putting in performances that help the team.
"Batting wasn't easy today as their spinners were getting the ball to drift in the strong wind, as well as turn. So I am very happy about the position we have put ourselves in."
There is some irony in the fact that Yorkshire's overseas batsman, Peter Handscomb, springs even further back in his crease than Ballance. Perhaps he was signed as a reminder perhaps that back-foot play is not necessarily a criminal offence. Although if the Conservatives' post-election deal with the DUP runs out of control, who knows what could become illegal?
Positive news for Somerset came from Bess, who took his fourth five-wicket haul in five matches. At 19, his story is already one of perseverance, a trip to the Darren Lehmann Academy in Adelaide kick-starting his career after the Somerset Academy chose not to commit to his talents.
Included in his 5 for 80 was a little drifter that did for Handscomb and a nicely-flighted delivery that had Jack Leaning caught at slip. A brief contest between Bess and Matthew Waite, an ambitious young player, quick on his feet, was as enjoyable as the day got.
Hindsight suggests that Somerset should have kept faith with the spinners at 223 for 8, the lead 201, but they did not, and Yorkshire's last two wickets added 60, primarily against pace bowlers and the second new ball, Ballance to the fore.
David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps