Pringle: Surely now it’s the last chance sa­loon for Gary Bal­lance and Eng­land

The Cricket Paper - - FRONT PAGE - DEREK PRINGLE

Gary Bal­lance prob­a­bly doesn’t have fond mem­o­ries of his Test de­but at Syd­ney in Jan­uary 2014. Sconned by Mitchell John­son, he made just seven and 18 as Eng­land lost heav­ily and suc­cumbed to their third white­wash in Ashes his­tory. But four years is long enough for en­tire ca­reers to play out and if he was preg­nant with po­ten­tial back then, he re­turns to Aus­tralia now very much en­sconced in that dreaded place of reck­on­ing for crick­eters – the Last Chance Sa­loon.

In their bid to es­cape it the LCS elic­its dif­fer­ent re­sponses from dif­fer­ent play­ers. For some, guarded cau­tion is the way out of its piti­less con­fines while oth­ers adopt a gam­bler’s aban­don, free­ing them­selves from their usual method with the ar­gu­ment that it was per­haps that which got them there in the first place. There is no de­fin­i­tive way to ab­scond and not all do.

Bal­lance is 27, still young for a bats­man, so it seems cu­ri­ous speak­ing of him as one fac­ing the en­croach­ing shadow of a fu­ture free of in­ter­na­tional cricket. It is not as if he has not known suc­cess ei­ther, hav­ing made four Test hun­dreds in his first nine Tests when he also av­er­aged 61.5. But he has slumped since, his next 14 Tests yield­ing just 637 runs at 24.5. Worse still, it ap­pears that he had been found out, a quirk in his tech­nique against pace bowlers – where he goes back deep in his crease and barely plays for­ward – be­ing ex­posed by those leather flingers with more than an amoeba’s brain, which it seems is many.

The net re­sult has been that those bowlers have first pushed him back with balls into his rib cage to dis­turb his bal­ance and then pitched it up to have him bowled, lbw or caught be­hind. It sounds sim­ple but isn’t though swingers like South Africa’s Ver­non Phi­lan­der and New Zealand’s Trent Boult and Tim Southee have been par­tic­u­larly ef­fec­tive at dis­miss­ing.

So bad has Bal­lance looked, at times, that he has been dropped thrice from Eng­land’s Test side in his last ten matches. Not many get a fourth chance af­ter that but here he is off to Oz, a good sum­mer with York­shire be­hind him and the whole­hearted back­ing of Joe Root, a county col­league and Eng­land cap­tain.

Bal­lance’s prob­lems stem not from a re­luc­tance to get for­ward but be­cause he is not com­fort­able against the short ball. Play­ing a long way back, as he does, gives him more time to deal with it though at the ex­pense of ex­pos­ing his front pad and stumps to at­tack from balls some­one like Root would treat as a half-vol­ley.

Un­less the ball swings his tech­nique, which he no doubt has tried to tweak in the in­terim, may not be so ex­posed in Aus­tralia. If it isn’t, that gives him a good chance of im­press­ing and escaping the LCS. Ex­cept, that, once you are in it get­ting out comes at roughly dou­ble the price of en­try, at least for bats­men. So if av­er­ag­ing 24 got him in there he will need to av­er­age at least 45 to break free.

Some suc­ceed some don’t, with An­drew Strauss be­ing a no­table es­capee back in 2008. Strauss ar­rived for the fi­nal Test against New Zealand in Napier hav­ing not made a hun­dred in his last 29 in­nings and with his in­ter­na­tional ca­reer on the line. Cu­ri­ously, he was put up for in­ter­view be­fore the match and his jit­ters were pal­pa­ble. It was no sur­prise then, bat­ting out of po­si­tion at num­ber three, when he made nought in the first in­nings, his hes­i­tant drive be­ing caught in the gully.

In the sec­ond, with Eng­land on top but him still at three, he was much bolder and re­sponded with a ca­reer best 177 as he and Ian Bell took the match out of New Zealand’s reach. It was a defin­ing mo­ment for Strauss and showed great char­ac­ter. He sur­vived re­turn­ing firstly to open the in­nings with Alas­tair Cook, then to cap­tain Eng­land af­ter Kevin Pi­etersen. In­deed, he played an­other 54 Tests af­ter Napier, more than half his even­tual tally and de­fin­i­tive proof, if any were needed, that not only do some es­cape the LCS they thrive there­after as well.

Al­though al­most un­think­able for some­one who was a fix­ture in the side dur­ing the 1980s, David Gower also found him­self in the LCS hav­ing gone 12 in­nings in 1990 with only one half­cen­tury to show for it. That was the sum­mer of the low-seamed ball and bats­men were mak­ing hay ev­ery day, all ex­cept him. But like Strauss, just when the chop threat­ened in the fi­nal Test of the sum­mer against In­dia, Gower made an un­beaten 157 at the Oval and booked his berth to Aus­tralia for the Ashes.

Bal­lance is 27, still young for a bats­man, so it seems cu­ri­ous speak­ing of him fac­ing the en­croach­ing shadow of a fu­ture free of in­ter­na­tional cricket

Things came to head again on that tour though this time it was a per­son­al­ity clash be­tween him and Gra­ham Gooch, Eng­land’s cap­tain. One Tiger Moth ride and a few ca­sual dis­missals later, in a se­ries Eng­land lost 3-0, and Gooch de­cided the team were bet­ter off with­out Gower, at least on over­seas tours. Three more home Tests against Pak­istan fol­lowed but that was it, though this time it was the long pas­ture rather than the LCS which beck­oned.

It is dif­fi­cult to think of too many bowlers lan­guish­ing in the LCS, as in­jury was as much a cur­tailer of ca­reers as bad form. One ex­am­ple would be Ian Sal­is­bury, who bowled leg-spin, an un­usual spe­cial­ism for Eng­land teams dur­ing the era in which he played, which was from 1992 un­til 2000. His, against Pak­istan at Lord’s, was his most suc­cess­ful game in terms of wick­ets (five), though Eng­land lost a close match. There­after it was mostly down­hill, though he was caught un­pre­pared in In­dia where he was un­fairly thrust into the first two Tests af­ter Eng­land’s two main spin­ners, Phil Tufnell and John Em­bu­rey, suf­fered crises of con­fi­dence. Sal­is­bury had been on hand as Eng­land’s net bowler and was not pre­pared for the car­nage which fol­lowed.

Hav­ing been used ev­ery two years or so by Eng­land, mainly abroad, he en­tered the LCS, iron­i­cally, in the al­co­holi­cally dry coun­try of Pak­istan in late 2000. But in­stead of ris­ing to his predica­ment, as our bat­ting ex­am­ples had done, he took 1-193 over three Tests and never played for his coun­try again.

In his stead, the se­lec­tors turned to the fin­ger spin of Ash­ley Giles, Robert Croft, Richard Daw­son and for one last time in 2001, Phil Tufnell – Tuf­fers be­ing the most nat­u­ral of all denizens of the LCS pro­vid­ing it served vodka tonic and had a nice sofa to kip on.

PIC­TURE: Getty Im­ages

Wel­come back! Af­ter a prof­itable sum­mer in do­mes­tic cricket, Gary Bal­lance has earned a place on the Ashes tour

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