It is relatively easy to praise cricketers who are in good form. They give you everything you need. While you write, they play. When your inspiration wanes, they reignite it with a flick of the wrists. When stumps are called, everyone wants to read about them. They skim your article for superlatives and make the noises they usually make when they agree with something.
It’s also easy to condemn a player out of form. They are not good enough, they are giving their wicket away, the strategy is wrong, X or Y should have been picked instead. Writing about cricket (especially for an England follower) is a constant exercise in explaining what went wrong, and who is to blame.
Defending the formless cricketer is a far tougher task. But in the case of Gary Ballance, England’s ODI number three for their last four matches, it is well worth undertaking. He has been casually dismissed as not suited to the limited-overs game, being out of his depth in international cricket, and batting out of place. There are grains, if not of truth, then of reason, in all of them. But the story is not as simple as Ballance’s critics make out.
In the debit column, Ballance’s batting has looked ugly during the World Cup. Anybody who has seen Ballance in full flow will attest to his remarkable touch and timing, and that is precisely what has abandoned him in Australia and New Zealand. He has been out poking, prodding and flicking. He can time shots like Frank Sinatra times notes. It simply hasn’t been happening in these matches.
Ballance’s List A record shows that he is among the top batsmen in county cricket. While his List A stats have plummeted during his recent slump, he still has the second-highest List A average of any England player ever, behind James Taylor. He has played at various places in the order throughout his career, and done well. It’s not that he has been over-promoted because an influential coach likes the cut of his jib. When England’s ODI selection policy is criticised for an over-reliance on Test players, Ballance’s name usually gets mentioned. But Ballance has a fine domestic record in one-day cricket, and his record merits a place in the final reckoning.
Also, if England are rewarding Test form with ODI selection, Ballance might have had a right to expect a more consistent run in the 50-over team. He averages over 60 in Tests, and was one of the stars of the summer. And yet he was left out of the seven-match tour of Sri Lanka that sealed Alastair Cook’s fate, and was only drafted in to the squad for the tri-series with India and Australia. He didn’t play due to an injury, and returned to action with a fifty in the warm-up game against Pakistan.
If Ballance was among the ECB’s favourite sons, he’d have been on the Sri Lanka tour. The assertion that his selection isn’t justified by limited-overs performances is not correct.
Then there is the idea that he isn’t good enough for international one-day cricket. That he can maul county attacks, but like Hick or Ramprakash, he comes undone against world-class bowlers. However, he has been dismissed by Tillakaratne Dilshan, Mitchell Marsh, and Alasdair Evans. None of them are marked improvements on the bowlers Ballance faces on a regular basis in county cricket. Trent Boult also took his wicket when he mistimed an aggressive shot to short cover. He isn’t falling victim to bowling in a different league from him. He is his own worst enemy. His battle is not with the bowlers, but with the physical and psychological processes that go into his own batting.
The charge that he is batting out of position is partly true, but cannot be held against him. He isn’t a senior player in this side, and probably isn’t given a choice on where he bats. Nor is he a ridiculous choice for number three: he bats at three in Tests, and intuitively, his ability to accumulate runs before accelerating later in his innings must be attractive to the decision makers. It is not an entirely incomprehensible piece of selection, but it is an entirely misguided one.
While Ballance has gone a long way towards becoming a worthy replacement for Jonathan Trott in Test cricket, England haven’t settled on an ODI number three. James Taylor, the latest in a line of potential successors to Trott that had included Luke Wright and Eoin Morgan, seemed to have sealed the spot. He did nothing wrong. He had four fifties in nine innings. But when the coaches decided finally to ditch Ravi Bopara, a man who for all his many qualities as a man and cricketer should not be in the World Cup squad, Ballance, who hadn’t played a List A game since Yorkshire were knocked out of the domestic 50-over tournament in England, was shoved in at three. On his return from injury.
James Taylor was beginning to look settled, and Ballance needed some protection from the new ball. Playing Ballance for Bopara as a straight swap at six was the obvious choice. The sensible choice. The right choice.
These are not excuses, they are explanations. He is a professional cricketer who knows that repeated failures, whatever the circumstances, will not be tolerated. You don’t get indulged as an England player unless you’re Alastair Cook or Eoin Morgan. Ballance is in horrendous form, and needs to take his share of the responsibility for that. But not all the blame can fall on his shoulders, and nor should it be assumed that he is simply not good enough.
Another curious aspect of the debate is the question of who should replace him if he were to be dropped (it is a typically English response to the problems caused by inconsistent selection to pick different players). Some goldfish-memoried pundits have suggested returning to Bopara. Alex Hales is a more credible option, but he too is a victim of the England selectors’ desperately worrying whims. He has been in and out, in and out, opening and then batting at three. He hasn’t grasped his chances, sure. But he hasn’t been given any sort of job security from the coaches, either.
Hales’ recent form doesn’t put pressure on Ballance’s spot. In the Big Bash, he was underwhelming. There are no guarantees that Hales is in better nick than Ballance. People are guessing and hoping. Neither Ballance nor Hales have been given enough support at the start of their England careers, and that is costing the team. They could both be in the XI, with 30 ODI caps each, and winning games of cricket for England.
The two men should look at themselves first for the cause of their slump, because that is how they will improve as cricketers. The rest of us should ask questions of the selectors, though. Hales and Ballance are good enough for international cricket, but they are victims of the ill-judged and ill-fated attempt to save Alastair Cook’s career. In a media environment where you are only as valuable as your last few scores, we should not lose sight of the bigger picture. Praise in-form players, yes. It is their moment. But don’t be hasty to write off struggling batsmen as duds without digging a little deeper.