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Ballance back in the balance as familiar failings surface

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WATCH - Maharaj beauty removes Bairstow (0:44)

WATCH - Maharaj beauty removes Bairstow (0:44)

Like a prisoner hauled back over the wall just as he thought he'd reached freedom, Gary Ballance finds himself in trouble when he should have been in clover.

Three times in this series Ballance has done the hard work. Three times in this series he has got himself in against testing bowling, and after the loss of early wickets.

And three times he has fallen before he has capitalised on his start. Scores of 20, 34 and 27 aren't awful. But they rarely win Tests, they're not what England are after, and they are not good enough to settle the debate about Ballance's future at this level.

To some extent, any debate about Ballance's selection seems premature. With more runs in the series than Alastair Cook, Keaton Jennings and Ben Stokes, he is the third-highest scorer in England's top six. And, in both Tests, he has batted in testing conditions and helped rebuild the innings after the loss of early wickets. His 34 in the second innings at Lord's was described as being "worth double" by Joe Root.

The same could be argued here. England lost their last seven wickets for just 62 as they were punished for taking an aggressive approach on a wicket offering seamers plenty. Ballance's contribution was the third highest of the England innings. It suggested his brand of attrition - though he has another gear when he is settled - was exactly what England required. A South African attack containing one rookie (in Duanne Olivier) and one seamer who looks as if he is struggling with his fitness (in Vernon Philander) could have been severely stretched by another couple of sessions in the field. As it was, England's innings only lasted 51.5 overs. It was a huge missed opportunity.

But Ballance comes with a bit of baggage. This is his third spell in the side and, having not altered a technique that some feel was his downfall previously, he is a contentious choice. On the eve of the match, Joe Root made no secret of the fact that Ballance, a long-time team-mate with Yorkshire and England and once a housemate, too, was very much his selection. It's not thought everyone else on the selection panel was so keen.

Part of the issue with Ballance is his recall last year. It was premature. It was made on the back of one good County Championship century at Scarborough and before he had fully come to terms with being dropped the previous time. He was still in the process of tinkering with his technique and rebuilding his shattered self-confidence. He was dismissed for single-figure scores six times in 11 innings in that second spell in the England side, passing 50 just once and averaging 19.90.

And because of that, it seems he will be afforded less patience this time. While Adam Lyth and Sam Robson were both given seven Tests when they came into the side, the sense with Ballance is that he will have to justify his recall much more quickly. Realistically he probably has until the end of the series. And if he's dropped again, for a third time, it will surely prove permanent.

England can't afford a protracted trial period. The search for Cook's opening partner continues - Jennings was unfortunate to receive a brute of a ball here, but he hasn't yet made the position his own - and, with their top-order continuing to misfire, they need solid contributions from their No. 3. They will be mindful of giving any potential replacements - the likes of Mark Stoneman or Dawid Malan, perhaps - a fair chance to bed in ahead of the Ashes. It is now 11 Test innings since Ballance reached 50 (or even 35) and, in his most recent 24 innings, he has reached 50 only twice. In that period he has averaged 19.19. It is not an especially small sample size.

The manner of Ballance's dismissal here was frustrating. He had, until that moment, been admirably certain in his foot movement. He had left well and negated Vernon Philander's inswing (to the left-hander) with pad and bat welded together, while still managing to put away the loose ball with an assurance he hasn't always mustered. He looked good. He had shown he could do this. He's shown it before, too. All four of his Test centuries came from No. 3 and, in his first 10 Tests, he averaged 67.93.

Perhaps he was surprised by a lack of pace -Philander doesn't look at peak fitness and the delivery was somewhere around 77 mph - or perhaps he had been encouraged to be more positive; the recklessness of England's batting may well define this Test. But he pushed at Philander's first ball after lunch and, leaving a gap between bat and pad, there was nothing to stop the subsequent inside-edge cannoning off the pad and onto the stumps. Decent bowling? Yes. But loose batting? Certainly.

It wasn't completely unfamiliar, either. Some of the talk about his technique is overplayed - neither Alastair Cook or Marcus Trescothick move their feet a huge amount, while Australia's Peter Handscomb plays further back in the crease, and the benefit of Ballance's compact style is that he is rarely drawn into pokes towards the slip cordon - the fact remains that Ballance has been caught on the crease in all three innings in this series. While he might claim, with some justification, his second-innings dismissal at Lord's came from an unplayable ball, these are the challenges for batsmen in the top three in international cricket. If you keep feeling you're receiving unplayable balls, you're probably not up to it.

He would probably find life easier at No. 5. Just as Jonny Bairstow would probably find life easier back at No. 7. While Bairstow scored 45 on Saturday, it was a high-risk innings that could have ended several times with flashes through point and gully, while the movement of Morne Morkel and Philander exploited his propensity to play slightly across the line. If he moved back to No. 7 and Ballance to No. 5, England would have enviable depth in batting.

But that's not what England want right now. And it would mean Moeen Ali accepting another demotion, as well as the dropping of Liam Dawson. That means Ballance has to make it at No. 3 or he won't make it at all. Realistically, he has five more innings to prove himself.