Gary Ballance: England's undercover agent
If it's not Bell, it's Broad. If not Cook then Root. Sometimes it is something more abstract, or Moeen. Invariably, it will be Anderson before too long. It was always Pietersen. And Swann. Briefly it was Plunkett. It will not be Prior for a while, if ever again. We thought it was going to be Stokes. Not sure anymore. And we don't know about Woakes. It might be Buttler now. It nearly was today.
Always, always, somebody or something overshadows Gary Ballance. The captain on Sunday, elegant Belly on day two. But without Ballance, rather like Jonathan Trott before him, much of the other folk's stuff might not happen.
Who is this Man in the Batsman's Mask? He plays for Yorkshire but he is no Yorkshireman. He played for Derbyshire but he is no East Midlander. He was educated at Harrow but he is no public schoolboy. He played in the Harrow First XI but he was only the second best batsman.
He came to Harrow from Harare via the Eastern Highlands. He is the son of a Zimbabwean tobacco farmer, whose land was stolen by Robert Mugabe. It is a similar road to the one travelled by Graeme Hick before him. But Hick flattered to deceive.
Hick was a boy prodigy, a 17-year-old good enough to make 300 in little more than a day at the Harare Sports Club for a pick-up President's XI against Ireland. The previous day he had smashed 160 not out against the hapless Irish in a one day game. That is a lot of leather chasing from the same bat in a 48-hour period!
Hick, the Worcestershire batsman, killed county attacks. Hick, the England-player-in-waiting made 170 against West Indies. But Hick, the England cricketer, was deeply unfulfilled. No one truly knows why. He had spent seven years qualifying for his adopted land and, in that time, was frequently referred to as the next Bradman. The expectation was absurd.
He hated the spotlight and he loved Worcester. At cosy, comfy New Road, he treated all-comers with disdain and, given there were no more than a handful of opponents who could knock his block off, the security and love provided by the locals saw him through. Maybe it is as simple that. The security and the love.
In contrast, Ballance flew in beneath the radar. Dave Houghton, the former Zimbabwe batsman, brought him to Derbyshire where he was coaching and had him in the county 2nd XI at 16. In his first match, against West Indies A, he played Tino Best as if the Barbadian speedster was a medium dobber. At the other end, he thumped Omari Banks for fours and sixes until the field retreated and he pushed singles for fun.
This was a mighty talent and England had no clue of it. But the Balance family have British passports and the eldest son of three had just one thing on his mind. Well two I suppose: professional cricket and an England cap. There were four years to serve before the ECB could claim him but, what with Harrow and the Yorkshire move, it whistled by.
The Harrow thing was an odd one. Ballance won a scholarship from a scheme introduced by an eminent Old Harrovian, Sir John Beckwith, whose love of the school was matched by a fascination with Zimbabwe and a lifelong belief in sport's ability to fulfil dreams.
Sam Northeast, the Kent batsman was there too, and the pair of them created havoc with the fixture list. On occasions Harrow reversed the order, simply to give the other school a better game. At Lord's, in the famous annual match against Eton that has been played for more than 200 years, Ballance made a hundred. Of course he did. He has now played four matches at Lord's and made hundreds in all of them.
Yorkshire nicked him off Derbyshire: ask Geoffrey Boycott about that. And while you are at it, remind the old boy that he is no longer the only fellow with a GB moniker that can cut it with the Three Lions on his chest. Give Geoffrey his due, he saw the stardust and pursued it. Yorkshire sold the family their history and their hope. They promised nothing but offered the world. From our academy to our second eleven, they said, and from there to the White Rose. After that it's cry God for Harry, Gary, England and St.George. How shrewd they were.
At the Ageas Bowl this morning, he batted with a hangover. Not beer or wine but blood and sweat. Unbeaten with 104 overnight, his tired feet were "stuck in a piss pot" as they like to say in the shire that brought us Fred and Closey, Illy and Boycs.
Rather than fret, which many have done, he stood dead still, watched the ball like a hawk and concentrated on punching it back from whence it came. After a while, he branched out, using strong wrists to score square of the wicket with wonderful certainty. This was very different batting from yesterday and told us much about his powers of application. It is the same whenever you watch him - five days, four days, 50 overs and 20 overs - he is flexible and relevant, a cricketer for all seasons.
Boycott says he can catch at slip and early signs suggest that he is right - annoying huh. Yorkshire have helped create the pro model of Ballance, puppy fat shed and generally sharper, more aware in the field.
Ballance pays reference to these necessities but his mind is for batting. He listens, he learns, he edits. He was enthralled by England's journey around Australia, despite the disastrous results, saying simply that he would rather have been there, seeing it all at close hand, than not. His first Test was at the Sydney Cricket Ground against a pack of Australian wolves, voracious for a series whitewash and excited by the taste of new blood. He made 18 and 7, appearing as if he could cope.
He has, as sports people love to say, an ideal temperament. This means he is not fazed by the event, the expectation or the opposition. It means that the GB we see in a Yorkshire jumper is exactly the same one who plays for England. He knows his game. He has control of it. He is composed and rational.
The back and across technique that sets him up to play each ball is well grooved. Yes, bowlers will soon start to bowl full and very straight for long periods in search of the lbw that seems inevitable from those trigger moves. At this moment, inswing is a serious threat. In the main, his Test match scoring is limited: responses to square cuts and clips from his pads and hip. Today though he punched down the ground on a couple occasions and held his body shape - as if to say, "nice".
In summary, England have found one. When told he was a candidate to bat at No. 3 at the start of the summer, he said: "When do I start?" Three hundreds in six Tests is quite a way to reward those who have had faith. Privately, he relishes the contests to come and particularly the chance to play the Australians on a more even footing that the one he found when the curtain was pulled back in Sydney. For the moment, he is careful to stay in the present.
Life is full of little lessons. Sydney was one. The next was after the end of the first Test against India at Trent Bridge when he was photographed lairy and topless after a night on the tiles.
It really is such an un-Gary thing to do, he is more fishing rod and golf clubs. Mind you, he was buying drinks for the girls so those exemplary Zimbabwean manners held firm under the influence.
It is, though, one should add, a very Zimbo thing to do. Play hard, party hard. He was with his two brothers and some friends. No big deal unless the tabloids catch on and these days they do, every time. So now he knows. The world is watching. He is unlikely to let it down.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK