England v India, 3rd Investec Test, Ageas Bowl, 2nd day July 28, 2014

Gary Ballance: England's undercover agent

England's Zimbabwe-born No. 3 flew under the radar almost until his debut - but the world is watching now

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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.

At the Ageas Bowl on the second 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 Yorkshire

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • dummy4fb on July 29, 2014, 21:46 GMT

    Us Yorkshire folk were pretty sure England had nicked the wrong guy when they took Root and not Ballance. Looks like they made the right call eventually though. Sadly, it's about time they took Lyth for Robson as well.

  • ZimCricFan on July 29, 2014, 13:27 GMT

    I'm happy for the guy but most were non-believers for a long time saying he scored his runs in Zim yet he was getting them both in Yorkshire and Zim. Some other players have played in Zim domestic competitions and failed and vice-versa but he has always been a run accumulator. he's the weakest at the start. i'm sure his average will come down a bit but he's very good. And no one blames him for choosing to play for England but us in Zim always think what if. the environment always drives away good players playing internationally whether it's cricket, rugby, tennis or golf. So now if he succeeds or fails, he's English

  • xtrafalgarx on July 29, 2014, 9:20 GMT

    @OhhhhhMattyMatty: Many a cricketer has started off like this, few have finished in the same manner.

  • Balladeer on July 29, 2014, 8:12 GMT

    How negative are we all? You can only play against what you're given, and Ballance has cashed in against these "Indian trundlers" where his teammates have often failed. Even when they've succeeded (Cook, Bell, Buttler) his innings has been much less chancy, and indeed he was only out to an umpiring error.

    There's no doubt that he will face sterner tests ahead; he'll probably have a lean run of form along the line, like most do; and it's FAR too early to even suggest that he might be "number 2 after Bradman." But the lad looks like a class act, even if he's not as pretty as Bell or as violent as Buttler. He looks like he could be a worthy successor to Trott - what Englishman can ask for more?

  • MarkTaffin on July 29, 2014, 8:12 GMT

    Might have been better to add a caveat at the end, Mark; the attacks he's scored runs against so far haven't been much of a challenge. And I'm a Yorkshireman hoping GB has all the success in the world in the future

  • Sexysteven on July 29, 2014, 2:33 GMT

    You can't judge ballance just yet wait to he faces better and faster bowlers and plays on pitches that ain't flat and dead like the ones he's playing on now then we will see how good he is cos he hasn't been tested so far playing on these roads in England I'll wait and see how he goes overseas in tougher batting conditions before I judge him one way or another

  • dummy4fb on July 29, 2014, 0:05 GMT

    Don't crown Ballance to HOF yet. When he plays in Ashes and fails, it will be deja vu.

  • JRP100 on July 28, 2014, 22:37 GMT

    Watching ballance pile these runs against such mediocre bowling attacks makes me wonder what the likes of ramprakash, hick and rob key would do if they had started their international careers now. They were unlucky to have to face mcgrath when they debuted while ballance gets Indian trundlers.

  • dummy4fb on July 28, 2014, 21:08 GMT

    You should change the title to 'flew under the radar, unless you happen to be a Yorkshire supporter.'

  • OhhhhhMattyMatty on July 28, 2014, 20:12 GMT

    If Ballance continues as he has started, he will be number 2 after Bradman.

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