It wasn’t exactly a good day to bury bad news but the issues surrounding Ben Stokes have rather masked the debate over England’s Ashes squad for 2017/18. The top order, which had struggled throughout a home summer, had come under particular scrutiny and the recall of Yorkshire’s Gary Ballance is the most contentious call.
The 27 year old played in the first two tests against South Africa before a finger injury curtailed his international summer but did England have any alternative following their post-season inquests.
Free the skipper
As soon as the Ashes squad was announced, and remember that this was just before the news regarding Ben Stokes broke, the overwhelming reaction on social media was a negative one. Australia are in a transitional stage themselves but Steve Smith’s side find themselves as odds-on favourites with the bookies to reclaim the urn.
Part of the discussion surrounds Captain Joe Root’s position in the order and, as England’s best batsman on a consistent basis there is a feeling that he should be allowed to bat in his preferred slot of number 4. This leaves the question of who comes in at first drop as the key call for the selectors.
Presumably, the debate came down to Ballance and Tom Westley of Essex who came in for the third test against South Africa and stayed for the remainder of the summer. Westley looked comfortable at test level at times but ultimately returned just 193 runs from nine innings at an average of just over 24.
Those aren’t stats to suggest that the 28 year old was a shoe-in for Australia but a calm performance in his last test innings hinted that the Essex man may have saved his place. In partnership with another newcomer in Mark Stoneman, Westley made a calm, unbeaten 44 as England chased down 107 to seal the series win over West Indies and it seemed that might have secured his slot.
Dawid Malan was the other batsman under pressure and over the same period, the Middlesex man had a marginally worse test average of 23.62. However, the fact that number three is such a key position may have ultimately sealed the separate fates of these two batters.
So why is Gary Ballance getting another go in the test arena after three years of failure at the top level? Issues with his technique and a seeming unwillingness to address them has led to widespread criticism of his selection and with good cause.
Pinned to the crease, Ballance provides a good target for left arm swing in particular so Mitchell Starc now has an extra incentive to stay fit for the whole of the Ashes summer.
None of that makes for positive reading buty the answer to the original question is that for all his current failings, Ballance has previously been a consistent success at test level. Other names in the hat included Sam Robson and Adam Lyth whose international careers flickered briefly with both notching a test ton prior to a slump in form.
Then we have Alex Hales who has yet to reach the three figure mark at test level and Haseeb Hameed who has been dogged by hand injuries over the last twelve months. Contrast their returns with that of Ballance who has four test centuries, a best of 156 and an average that remains reasonable at 37.45.
England are clearly hoping that somehow the Yorkshireman can rediscover that early international form and consider him a better option than those who have tried and never succeeded. It’s a sensible approach but a poor series will surely end Gary Ballance at test level and leave that number three slot up for grabs yet again.