Finding alternatives: Ballance’s wobbles means selectors need to look elsewhere

The batsman has been given another chance in the second test against South Africa, but two more poor scores and his international career will be over.

English cricket is in good health. Across all three formats the side is tough to beat, with the T20 side reaching the last World Cup final, and the 50 over team making it through to the Champions Trophy semi-finals. With the test side, there are some sensational players in there, but they are propping up some of the weaker members of the team.

This is very much the case with Yorkshire batsman Gary Ballance. The left hander is currently in his fourth spell in the England team, and if he fails to secure a place this time around, there is a sense that this series against South Africa will be his last.

Gary Ballance is a quality batsman, make no mistake about it. The Zimbabwe-born man was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 2015, has four test centuries to his name and averages 50 in first class cricket. However, he is yet to hit a ton at test level since 2015 and has seen his average drop to 39 in the test arena.

He has been in sensational form for county side Yorkshire this season, averaging over 100, but his struggles on the international scene highlights the gulf in quality between first class and test cricket.

Ballance hit just 20 and 34 in his two innings against South Africa last week
Ballance hit just 20 and 34 in his two innings against South Africa last week

So where is it all going wrong for Ballance? Ironically, it is his balance on the crease that is letting him down. Never have we seen a player who is so reluctant to get forward. If a seam bowler fires down a juicy half-volley outside off stump, Ballance will rock back and try and hit the ball through point.

Any other batsman in the world will be smashing the ball to the boundary through the covers. His technique means that when he gets out, good ball or not, it just looks like a car crash. Nicking off to half-volleys, getting trapped LBW or bowled to full balls when playing back is a cardinal sin.

If you compare him to England great Marcus Trescothick, renowned for his lack of foot movement, it was still clear when Trescothick was coming forward or playing back, throwing his hands at the ball, whereas Ballance just sits deep in his crease and plays the ball late near enough every time.

Who could replace him?

The 27-year-old Ballance was picked off the back of his superb county form and a recommendation for Yorkshire teammate and new England captain Joe Root. So who is out there hitting runs who can replace the batsman. Head coach Trevor Bayliss will not be wanting to juggle around his batting order too much, with Joe Root nicely settled at number four.

Number three is an odd position, and England have struggled over the past few years and who to play there, with no man settling on the position since Jonathan Trott back in 2013. The number three batsman needs to have an opener’s temperament as they can be in as early as the first over of the match, so a man who is happy to leave the ball is crucial.

Mark Stoneman has been in sensational form for Surrey this season, hitting a century in the One Day Cup final and averaging 59 in this season’s County Championship. However, the 30-year-old is an opener and either he or Keaton Jennings, who is by no means established in this England side, would have to drop to number three. The same could be said for Haseeb Hameed, but the 20-year-old has had a poor season, failing to capitalise on his superb winter in India.

The door has been no means shut on Alex Hales, who hit a winning unbeaten 187 during the One Day Cup final earlier this month. Despite being an opener, a drop to three could suit his more attacking style, but an average of just 27 at test level and only playing four first class games this summer means he has plenty to do. Sam Robson, one of many opening partners trialled with Alastair Cook, has not played for England since 2014, but is averaging a healthy 59. Now 28, he may be of the perfect maturity to be reintroduced to the England side.

England fans would love to see Alex Hales back in a white shirt
The Barmy Army would love to see Alex Hales back in a white shirt

Lastly, we have Surrey’s Rory Burns and Essex man Dan Lawrence. Burns is fresh off the back of an unbeaten double hundred in the County Championship where he is averaging 61. The opener has the fourth highest amount of runs this season, behind Kumar Sangakkara, Gary Ballance and teammate Mark Stoneman.

With all the other contenders being openers, it could work in his favour that Dan Lawrence bats in the middle order for Essex. That said, Lawrence bats at four, and his selection would mean that Joe Root would step back up to three.

The fact that there are no shoe-in contenders to replace Ballance at number three is why he has maintained is selection in the England side. Time is running out though, and after being given so many chances on the Test stage, it would be unlikely that he would get the entire South Africa series to hit runs. With an Ashes series this winter, the England selectors will want to have a set side going into the final series of the summer against the West Indies. Ballance may just have one match to save his international future.