MARTYN MOXON is confident that Yorkshire will have England stars Joe Root and Gary Ballance available for the last two games of the County Championship season in a major boost to the club’s title hopes.
The county’s director of cricket has said he is increasingly optimistic that England will allow both men to play in the key matches against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge and Somerset at Headingley.
Leaders Yorkshire are six points clear of Nottinghamshire with three games left, the first of them against lowly Lancashire at Old Trafford starting on Sunday.
And with England pace bowler Liam Plunkett also on course to return for the last two Championship games after an ankle injury, Yorkshire are well-placed to end their 13-year wait for a four-day title.
As Root and Ballance prepared for today’s second one-day international against India in Cardiff, following Monday’s washout at Bristol, Moxon said: “England haven’t definitely given the all-clear regarding Joe and Gary’s availability for the last two Championship games, but I’m hopeful that they will.
“Both players have also indicated they want to play.
“We’re still awaiting official confirmation that England are happy with that, so that’s where we’re at.
“I’m certainly hopeful they will be available.”
The penultimate match against Nottinghamshire starts just two days after the last game of the international summer – a T20 fixture against India at Edgbaston on September 7.
Root and Ballance have had superb seasons at Test level; Root scored 777 runs in the seven games against Sri Lanka and India at an average of 97.12, while Ballance struck 704 at 70.40.
Ballance played in four of Yorkshire’s Championship games prior to the Tests, scoring 410 runs at 68.33, while Root appeared in two of them, making 132 runs at 44.00.
One would return to the Yorkshire team as a direct swap for Kane Williamson, the New Zealand batsman who is leaving shortly to play for Northern Knights in the T20 Champions League in India, while the other would most probably replace Jack Leaning, the 20-year-old who has done a fine job this year while Root and Ballance have been away.
There is a possibility, however, that Root, Ballance and Williamson could all feature in the last match against Somerset that starts on September 23.
Williamson definitely misses the Nottinghamshire game due to the Champions League, but he could potentially return for the Somerset fixture – and possibly a Lord’s final in the Royal London Cup on September 20 – if his T20 franchise are knocked out early.
Northern Knights are in the qualifying stage of the Champions League, which takes place from September 13-16, ahead of the main tournament that runs from September 17-October 4. Moxon said that New Zealand may not be keen on Williamson travelling back and forth.
However, I understand that Yorkshire’s hopes would be strengthened if Williamson, who is currently banned from bowling due to a suspect action, could be retested in England next month, which would ultimately benefit the New Zealanders.
“There is an outside chance that Kane could come back to us in late September,” said Moxon.
“New Zealand may not be too keen on it, and I think we’ll know nearer his leaving date as to whether he’ll be allowed to come back if his T20 side do get knocked out early.”
Williamson, 24, who scored his maiden century for Yorkshire in their last Championship game against Sussex at Scarborough, will play in tomorrow’s Royal London Cup quarter-final against Durham at Headingley.
If Yorkshire win, he would also be available for the semi-final, which would be held on September 4 or 6.
If Yorkshire are knocked out, the Championship game against Lancashire would be his last appearance – pending the Champions League situation.
While Yorkshire await confirmation of the availability of Root, Ballance and Williamson, there is positive news regarding Plunkett.
“Liam had his first training session on Monday,” said Moxon. “It’s a case of him building things up, and we’ll just have to see how he progresses.
“But we’re still targeting the game at Trent Bridge for his return, fingers crossed.”
Meanwhile, Root last night spoke out in defence of Alastair Cook after former England players Graeme Swann and Michael Vaughan said the captain might be better off stepping down from 50-over cricket to concentrate on Tests.
“He’s our leader in one-day cricket as well as Tests and he’s done well over a number of years,” said Root.
“He’s a fantastic player and has got all of our support.”