Ballance channels his Trott, then his KP
Kevin Pietersen was back at an English Test ground on Sunday. And he was very close to the ECB. Two hospitality boxes away to be precise. It was, therefore, unfortunate timing that England produced a floundering batting display, especially as Pietersen left the ground well before Gary Ballance completed the rescue mission by reaching a maiden Test hundred with a six.
Pietersen began his day by tweeting his hopes for what lay ahead. "Going to Lord's today. Want to see SL out 460 & ENG bat positively to a 380 lead then declare...entertain today pls, Cook's men!"
His numbers were remarkably prescient: Sri Lanka were bowled out for 453 and England ended with a lead of 389 although the declaration did not arrive. With his 104 Tests of experience, he should be well aware that plans do not always come together perfectly.
At 121 for 6 it was far from perfect for England, who were grateful for every one of the 122 runs they led by on first innings. Ballance, though, kept them steady, with further help from the lower order - an impressive display after his somewhat skittish display in the first innings. The split of his fifties was telling: 130 for the first and 54 for the second, while he went from 67 to his hundred in 17 deliveries.
And of more significance to Ballance than to whether Pietersen was still in his seat, his parents and brother had flown in from Zimbabwe a few days before the Test. "It's special to score a hundred in front of them," he said. "It's a great feeling, can't really describe it to be honest, just very special. I'm over the moon."
But while the Ballance was very much right for England, there will again be questions over whether Alastair Cook got the balance right. He decided the chance for a maiden Test hundred (personal stats are of the utmost importance to most cricketers, whatever they may say) and a few extra runs outweighed the advantages of having a bowl this evening.
Maybe Middlesex's mammoth chase of 472, achieved for just three wickets, was preying on the mind. It came against Yorkshire and three of the England side - Ballance, Joe Root and Liam Plunkett - played in the game. But you sincerely hope that was not the case. That match was played on the edge of the first-class square with a very short boundary and captains should not be swayed by freakish results.
Going to Lord's today. Want to see SL out 460 & ENG bat positively to a 380 lead then declare...entertain today pls, Cook's men! #lords— Kevin Pietersen (@KP24) June 15, 2014
When Matt Prior fell shortly after tea the lead was a precarious 243, but once it had passed 300 England were far more secure. Cook was proactive in the field on Saturday, but today he was not about to take a leap of faith, although giving Sri Lanka 20 minutes before close would hardly have been jumping into the abyss. Ballance will be forever thankful to him.
He has barely batted at No. 3 in his professional career and while too much can be made of the difference in batting positions he is learning on the job. The man who has left the hole that needs filling, Jonathan Trott, would have been proud of the way he built the innings although Ballance showed acceleration that Trott may have struggled to reproduce. It was the first hundred by an England No. 3 since Trott made 121 against New Zealand, in Wellington, last March.
The way he handled himself against Mitchell Johnson on his Test debut in Sydney earned praise - although partly because so much else around him was feeble - and a strong start to the season for Yorkshire meant he was not one of those jettisoned, although coming into this match his position felt the most awkward of the top order.
Still, a few pieces to the jigsaw have slotted into place for England, from Root's double century, Prior's successful recall and Chris Jordan's lively debut. It would be ideal if Moeen Ali could winkle out a couple of wickets on the final day.
"I learnt a lot over the winter and then started well with Yorkshire," Ballance said. "I was in good form in the one-dayers but didn't get the big score, then to get the chance to bat three for England I wasn't going to say no. It's quite daunting batting anywhere in your first Test at Lord's but at three I was in quite early in the first innings so didn't have much time to worry about nerves."
After being caught behind driving in the first innings Ballance left studiously this time although he admitted a "heart in mouth" moment when Sri Lanka went up for an edge on 36 and used the DRS. But outwardly there appeared precious few nerves as he approached his hundred, racing through the 80s and 90s with drives, reverse sweeps and the occasional bludgeon, all the while knowing the close was approaching.
"Luckily I got a few boundaries away and got to three figures," he said. "With one over to go I needed three, I think, and didn't want to nurdle around in singles so thought I'd go with the slog sweep I hit it out the middle but the breeze was blowing down the slope so I thought I might not have got enough of it but when I saw it go over the rope it was a great feeling."
Pietersen could not have done it better himself.
Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo