“THE Ashes: Who is Gary Ballance?”
That was the headline in one national newspaper after the Yorkshire batsman was chosen in the England Test squad.
The newspaper proceeded to bullet-point the salient details of Ballance’s career to illuminate those who know nothing or little about him.
It highlighted how the 23-year-old’s selection surprised a country not yet fully cognizant of his capabilities.
Thankfully, the same cannot be said of the England selectors, who have wised-up quickly to Ballance’s potential.
This, in direct contrast, is no surprise, given that one of their number, James Whitaker, is a regular at Headingley.
With Yorkshire boasting much of the country’s top young talent, including Ballance’s England colleagues Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow, Whitaker has justifiably spent much time watching Yorkshire at work.
He has seen for himself, too, the progress of young opening batsman Alex Lees, who was named in the England Performance Programme squad that will shadow the Test party Down Under after a fine first season at county level this year.
It is Ballance, however, who is English cricket’s man of the moment, Ballance on whom much of the attention will focus between now and the first Test in Brisbane on November 21.
Is he being taken to Australia to carry the drinks, or does he have a genuine chance of featuring in the Tests?
If Whitaker’s admiration is any indication, Ballance most certainly has a genuine chance, and he will not be fazed by the opportunity either.
Full credit to Whitaker and the selection panel.
It would have been easy – particularly in light of the ill-fated dalliance with the Lancashire left-arm spinner Simon Kerrigan for the fifth Test against Australia last month – for England to have played it safe this winter Down Under.
Ballance, after all, has yet to play a Test match and he suffered the ignominy of a second-ball duck on his only one-day international appearance against Ireland earlier this month.
It would have been easy to have picked him in the EPP, or to have left him at home just for the time being.
England could have gone back to Nick Compton – with one eye on dropping Root back down the order – or given Nottinghamshire batsman James Taylor another opportunity.
They could have played it ultra-safe and gone back to Ravi Bopara, whose chance has surely come and gone at Test match level.
Instead, England have spotted something in Ballance – just as they spotted something in Root and Bairstow – and acted on a hunch.
It is a decision that could well pay handsome dividends.
So, who is Gary Ballance?
Well, he is a more understated package than Root and Bairstow, which perhaps explains such questions in the first place. He has neither Root’s boyish appeal nor Bairstow’s chutzpah; he is an unremarkable fellow without a bat in his hand.
Born in Zimbabwe, Ballance represented Derbyshire before moving to Yorkshire, where he has worked his way steadily up through the ranks.
One of his claims to fame is that he is the nephew of the former Zimbabwe batsman Dave Houghton.
Ballance has a first-class average of 50-plus and is an excellent fielder – particularly in the slips, where he misses little.
He also has a splendid cricket brain.
Ballance’s England call-up raises an intriguing possibility, for with the England No 6 spot still up for grabs, it could be a shoot-out between Ballance and Bairstow for a place in the Test side.
Commonsense dissuades me from predicting a winner, but such a challenge would bring the best out of both men.
In the long-term, there seems every chance that the England top-six could feature Ballance, Root and Bairstow.
All have the talent to nail down a spot.
They say that a strong Yorkshire is a strong England, but if the club will insist on producing such quality players, they face a very real challenge to keep their own side strong.
But that, as they say, is another story.