There are still six weeks to go until Joe Root is furnished with his first England Test team but already the word going around Headingley is that he will be pushing for his Yorkshire captain, Gary Ballance, to be recalled. As such, the club’s head coach, Andrew Gale, is making a contingency plan.
To strengthen Root’s case between now and when the selectors meet – and give his county the latest in a long line of international headaches – Ballance must continue his golden summer with the bat, one that since replacing Gale as captain at the start of the year has already seen him chalk up an astonishing 1,027 domestic runs.
Of these, 508 have come in the County Championship – including 108 and 203 not out in an epic draw with Hampshire last month – and it is here where the 27-year-old’s chances of adding to his 21 Test caps will be judged. It starts on Friday at Old Trafford for the first of two back-to-back Roses matches with Lancashire in what Gale is viewing as a “mini-series” between the trans-Pennine rivals over the next three weeks.
“Appointing Gary as captain was always going to be a risk for us because if he bats like he can he will definitely be on England’s radar,” said Gale, who welcomes back the fit-again new ball pairing of Ryan Sidebottom and Jack Brooks. “He’s scoring runs in front of the England captain, who can see just how well he is batting at the moment.
“That’s a concern for us, although we obviously want Gary to do well and progress in his career and play for England – the same with all our players. We are already talking about how we will fill that hole and put some plans in place, so it’s not so much of a shock when it comes around.”
Ballance has of course had two stabs at Test cricket previously. The first was a bumper 16-month spell in which he became the third fastest England batsman to 1,000 runs (taking just 17 innings) only to eventually fizzle out at the start of the 2015 Ashes series. The second came last year when he was returned to the side amid a season of only fleeting form and duly averaged just 19.9 in six Tests.
That ill-judged second coming – one that surprised Ballance himself and came solely off the back of one century against Middlesex at Scarborough – may have set him back in the eyes of some, however Gale sees a renewed intensity to the left-hander’s game this year and one that, like his craggy batting-style, is far removed from his knockout personality off the field.
Gale said: “He has a new-found focus and is training harder than ever – my shoulder is dropping off from the number of throwdowns he’s asking for, which shows how hungry he is. Gary is a work hard, play hard character. He enjoys a beer with the lads but don’t let that detract from how seriously he takes his cricket.
“When he speaks in the dressing room, people listen. He hates losing and you can see that from how angry and down he gets when we do. His personality away from the game is totally different to on the pitch. Like all top batsmen, he has a selfishness and hunger for runs. He’s never got enough. If he gets out for 150, it wasn’t 200 – it’s that sort of mentality. That’s ingrained and you can’t teach that.”
Ballance’s chances of bringing his hunger back to Test cricket will also depend on the balance of Root’s side as captain. Jonny Bairstow, England’s wicketkeeper, ended the winter tour of India in the No5 spot with Jos Buttler as a curiously-placed specialist No7. But if England revert to the plan of their two previous summers, with Bairstow dropping below Ben Stokes, and Moeen Ali returning to No8, a spot in the middle will become available.
There others jostling for contention also. Lancashire’s Liam Livingstone enjoyed a blistering start to the red-ball summer after impressing for the Lions over the winter and would provide an attacking option. Sam Northeast, captain of the Kent side that travels to Leicestershire in Division Two, is gaining some traction among selection circles with 1,406 runs at an average of 66.9 since the start of last year.
The Roses match is one of two derbies starting on Friday, with the champions Middlesex hosting Surrey at Lord’s. Essex take on Hampshire at Chelmsford, while at Taunton, what is already shaping up to be a relegation battle takes places as bottom side Somerset – last year’s runners-up – take on seventh-placed Warwickshire.
In Division Two, the runway leaders Nottinghamshire will give a debut to Cheteshwar Pujara – their overseas replacement for James Pattinson – at Glamorgan, with one of the Indian Test batsman’s former counties, Derbyshire, at home to Worcestershire.