Ballance: Tobacco farms to Tests

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Ballance has made a fine start to his Test career.

Simon Ballance’s shoulder is knackered. On his tobacco farm, three hours south of Harare in the large spaces of slow, endless land, days were long.  

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Simon wouldn’t head for the farmhouse and to comfort when the day’s work came to a close. Instead, he would do as he did most evenings. He would seek out his three sons in the cricket net in their garden; youngest Dylan, Bruce in the middle, Gary the oldest. 

Here, despite protestations from a shoulder growing weary from these endless net sessions, he would feed throw-downs to his three children. It wasn’t a coaching session: it was fun, it was father-son. And these evenings, as the sun set across Zimbabwe, was where Gary Ballance formed the muscle memory that, a continent and a lifetime away, would propel him to a stately average of 67.93 from his first 10 Tests. It was from southern African soil that England’s new batting machine was forged.

*****

Lord’s, June 15, 2014. England are pushing for a second-innings declaration in the first Test against Sri Lanka; the first Test of Peter Moores’ second era. There are new faces: Moeen Ali, Sam Robson, Chris Jordan. Liam Plunkett is back after a seven- year absence. There is also an old face, found in one of the posh boxes; Kevin Pietersen, banished, is watching on with his partner in crime Piers Morgan, surveying this new dawn from the outside.

In the evening session, there is a growing sense that the declaration must come soon to give England time to bowl Sri Lanka out. But Ballance, promoted to No. 3 – a position he had never filled for Yorkshire – is struggling for rhythm. He refuses to drive at anything. It is ugly. Jordan scores a punchy 35 to relieve the pressure on Ballance, who has been given the chance to complete his maiden Test century in his second match. Then, when Jordan falls, something snaps into place. With four overs left in the day, and an overnight declaration a necessity, Ballance broadens his repertoire.

The muscle memory kicks in and he races from 82 to his century in seven balls. A driven four, a pull to the boundary, a reverse sweep past backward point, three singles – long on, cover, midwicket – and, in the final over, a lump into the stands over deep midwicket. A first Test century, brought up with a six. Gary Ballance has arrived. 

Two days earlier, Joe Root, recalled to the side after his axing at Sydney in the Ashes whitewash – where he had been replaced by Ballance – had made an unflustered double-century from his new position at No.5. In the nine Tests since the start of Moores’ era, Ballance, from three, and Root, from five, have scored 2,095 runs and hit eight centuries – four apiece. While much is negative around England, these two young men are dominating Test cricket, batting England by stealth towards a bright future.

Former flatmates, both with a late-night lapse to their name in Nottingham – Root punched by David Warner, Ballance photographed in a club with his top off – they have rebuilt a middle-order savaged by Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris. But while Root is following in the familiar Yorkshire footsteps of Len Hutton, Geoffrey Boycott and Michael Vaughan, Ballance has had trod his own, less familiar path.  

*****

They called Ballance ‘Bullet’ at Peterhouse, a boarding school in the blink-and-you’ll- miss it old farming town of Marondera, halfway between his parents’ farm and Harare, halfway from nowhere. The nickname was affectionate, but it was also ironic. Ballance, short, a little tubby, was slow in the outfield and between the wickets. The boy was popular, though. Old teachers and coaches talk of a confident but not intense character. A bit of a scamp; a kid comfortable in his own skin. He was school fly-half at rugby, a demon at hockey. And, from an early age, his cricket stood out for one thing rarely seen in Zimbabwean cricket – the ability to play off the back foot. 

Featherbed pitches allow adept front-foot play; find a young batsman in Zimbabwe and he’ll be thrusting that front foot forward, driving, looking a million dollars. Put him on the back foot and he’ll turn into Phil Tufnell. Ballance was different. He gave himself time to play by pushing back, cutting, pulling.  He was brave, too. Pushed up an age group he would often face giants with a ball in their hand, on the scent for callow kids.

Ballance stood up to them. He hooked them, he made them back down, he earned their respect. More importantly, he was noticed. At just 16, the Zimbabwe selectors came calling, choosing this podgy prodigy for the 2006 Under-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka. There he came up against England in the group stages at Colombo, taking 3-21 with his legspin and top-scoring with 47 (stumped off the bowling of England captain Moeen Ali) as he guided Zimbabwe to victory.

By this stage Ballance already knew he wanted to play his cricket in England. Like many Zimbabweans armed with British passports, it is a desirable career path. The story is now familiar: Derbyshire coach Dave Houghton was married to a cousin of Ballance’s father and brought him to England.

Sometimes, a little luck is needed. So, seven months after that Under-19 World Cup, and still 16, Ballance was making his Derbyshire debut against West Indies A. He made 48. The next bit of fortune was being spotted by Boycott. He liked what he saw, met Ballance and his parents and sold the history of Yorkshire to them. It didn’t take long to persuade him – Ballance had grown up in love with Vaughan’s batting. In 2008 he moved across the county border, and joined forces with Root.

*****

It hasn’t all been a charmed England existence for Ballance. After building up his reputation in Tests to the extent that Jonathan Trott, England’s first great No. 3 since David Gower, wasn’t missed, then came the World Cup. No cricket since September, little time to prepare and thrust suddenly into the one-day side for the second game of the tournament. 

The selectors had stuffed him and he struggled, scoring 36 runs in four innings. Rhythm gone, confidence slipped, reputation diminished. Lesser characters wouldn’t have bounced back; some such as Boycott even talked of dropping him down the order to fit Trott back in at three. Ballance, though, did as he had done at Lord’s against Sri Lanka: he went to Antigua for the first Test against West Indies and slowly built his confidence and reputation with a second-innings century, the dust and rust falling away as the runs returned.

His average will dip. Of course it will. To keep it above 50 let along in the high 60s is beyond most batsmen. Around the corner awaits the armoured attacks of Johnson, Harris, Starc, of Boult and Southee rather than the three-wheelers of Sri Lanka, India and West Indies he has so far faced. His technique will be examined forensically by more skilful bowlers, his temperament hurried by real pace.

Everything he has done so far suggests he will be fine. Unhurried and calm at the crease, he goes about his batting in his own sweet time, knowing an extra gear is there if he needs it. Simon Ballance’s shoulder might not agree, but if his son carries on his form into the Ashes then those endless hours of throw-downs on the tobacco farm, 7,000 miles from Lord’s, will have been more than worth it.

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Kayes & Haque put Tigers in control

Sport360 staff 30/04/2015
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Hard work: Half-centuries from Kayes and Haque lit up a slow first day.

Half-centuries from Imrul Kayes and Mominul Haque put Bangladesh on top after a slow first day of their two-Test series against Pakistan.

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Patient batting throughout the day saw the hosts to 236 for four in Khulna, with Kayes making 51 before Mominul took charge with 80 until his late dismissal. Mahmudullah added 49 and though four different bowlers took a wicket apiece, dropped catches plagued Pakistan.

Kayes survived a leg-before review off the third ball of the match and Zulfiqar Babar failed to pick the ball up with a chance to run out Tamim Iqbal in the eighth over. It took almost nine overs for the score to reach double figures, when Kayes pulled Junaid Khan for the first boundary.

Yasir Shah misjudged a boundary chance to allow Kayes to move from 12 to 16 and Tamim was dropped on 16, Mohammad Hafeez putting down a tough one-handed catch at short leg. Tamim fell three overs before lunch for 25, caught off bat and pad by Azhar Ali as spinner Yasir survived a no-ball review, and Kayes was dropped at short leg as the interval arrived with the score 60 for one.

Mominul Haque was hit on the helmet by Junaid but hit his next ball for four, and Kayes reached a 129-ball half-century but went no further as he chipped the next ball straight back to bowler Hafeez – the off-spinner’s first Test wicket since having to remodel his action following a ban from bowling. 

Babar dropped Mominul off his own bowling when the batsman was on 17 and Mahmudullah edged Wahab Riaz between the two slips.

Mominul did well to avoid an accidental beamer from Wahab and was on 35 to Mahmudullah’s 31 at tea, with Bangladesh 150 for two. Mominul’s fifty arrived from 108 balls with a single off Babar but Mahmudullah failed to follow, falling one short when wicketkeeper Sarfraz Ahmed showed his team-mates the way with a diving right-handed catch off Wahab.

An appeal next ball against Mominul was rejected, a decision supported by DRS, and he and Shakib Al Hasan took their side past 200. Mominul took successive boundaries off Hafeez but was pinned lbw by Babar from the penultimate scheduled delivery of the day.

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Zimbabwe confirm ODI tour of Pakistan

Sport360 staff 30/04/2015
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A full ICC member has not toured Pakistan since 2009.

The cricket starved fans of Pakistan have finally received the good news they have been waiting six years to hear as Zimbabwe officially confirmed their one-day series tour in May.

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The five-match limited-overs series will consist of two T20Is and three ODIs, beginning on May 19. 

Zimbabwe will become the first ICC full-member nation to visit Pakistan since the 2009 terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team bus in Lahore.

“I am grateful to my counterpart in Cricket Zimbabwe, Wilson Manase, for acceding to our request of sending a full side on a tour to Pakistan. This would be an auspicious moment for Pakistan cricket and I am positive that it would open doors of international cricket in Pakistan,” PCB Chairman Shaharyar Khan said on the development. 

“Kenya have already been here for five matches against Pakistan ‘A’ and I am indeed confident that Zimbabwe’s incident-free tour shall be the harbinger of more and more associate and full member nations visiting us in the months and years to come.”

Cricket Zimbabwe’s security team will accompany the team in Lahore – the venue for each of the five games being the Gaddafi Stadium – with a mandate to review the security arrangements put in place by the PCB with the full backing and support of the Punjab government and various provincial and federal law enforcement agencies.

“We vigorously tried to convince Cricket Zimbabwe to split the matches between Lahore and Karachi but the visiting team’s members expressed concern on extensive travelling, and their request had to be accommodated”, said a PCB spokesman.

Meanwhile, Chairman of Zimbabwe Cricket Wilson Manase stated: “I can confirm that Zimbabwe will visit Pakistan in May. We had a duty to ensure the parents of the players, the players and government are on board before announcing the tour. We have taken cognizance of all the factors for us to arrive at this decision, so let’s not be alarmist about the situation in Pakistan.”

Cricket Zimbabwe CEO Alistair Campbell added: “We are touring Pakistan as a measure of establishing bilateral relations between us and them; they [Pakistan] will also come to Zimbabwe in August.”

Campbell also added that coach Dav Whatmore has signed a new agreed a new four-year deal with Zimbabwe.

Full tour itinerary:
May 19: Team Zimbabwe arrive
May 22: First T20I
May 24: Second T20I
May 26: First ODI
May 29: Second ODI
May 31: Third ODI
June 01: Team Zimbabwe departs

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