THE names of Jonny Bairstow and Joe Root have lately been doing the international rounds and there is a third young batsman at Yorkshire County Cricket Club who may soon be on the tip of everybody’s tongue.
Gary Ballance, the man with the most exasperating surname in cricket for a journalist on account of the fact that computer spell-checkers automatically change it back to “Balance” as you type, will be forgiven that minor imposition if, as seems certain, more and more writers are bedazzled by his batting and duty-bound to detail his ascending achievements.
For while Bairstow was last weekend celebrating his first Test call-up and Root was helping England Lions to victory over West Indies with an unbeaten hundred, Ballance was inspiring the second-highest run-chase in Yorkshire’s history with an undefeated century of impeccable order against Gloucestershire at Bristol.
It left this observer in no doubt that the stylish left-hander can aspire to the heights of his colleagues and that, in Bairstow (aged 22), Root (21) and Ballance (22), Yorkshire possess three of the brightest young batsmen around.
Although born in Zimbabwe and favoured with a suitably distinctive accent, Ballance is English-qualified and very much committed to cricket in this country.
The nephew of Dave Houghton, the former Zimbabwe captain, Ballance was on Derbyshire’s books as a 16-year-old and played a handful of games for them in 2006 and 2007.
Limited opportunities motivated a move to Yorkshire, where he worked his way up through the Academy and second team before a breakthrough summer last year when he topped Yorkshire’s first-class averages with 862 runs at 47.88.
Now it seems only a matter of time before Ballance follows Root into the England Lions’ team – possibly before the end of the summer – and then, hopefully, emulates Bairstow by breaking into the full international side further down the line.
“Jonny and Joe have done tremendously well, and to see what they have achieved definitely inspires me,” said Ballance, ahead of today’s Championship match against Hampshire at Headingley Carnegie.
“They’ve performed superbly, and it gives me extra motivation to try to improve my own game and to see where that takes me.
“We’re all the same age, pretty much; I came up through the Academy with them and I’m good friends with them.
“It’s great to see them doing so well because they are quality cricketers who deserve everything they’ve got.”
On the subject of quality cricketers and deserving characters, Ballance himself scores highly, too.
A modest man, he prefers to let his bat do the talking and leave the talking-up of himself to others.
In that respect one is happy to oblige, for Ballance’s century against Gloucestershire last Saturday, as Yorkshire won by four wickets chasing 400, was, in my view, the innings of the match, even though Phil Jaques scored a super 160.
The pair added 203 for the fourth-wicket to lead Yorkshire to a win that sent them joint-top of the Second Division and rewarded the bold tactic of captain Andrew Gale and first-team coach Jason Gillespie, who agreed to a target of 400 from 110 overs that would have been dismissed as fanciful by some management teams.
Ballance, who is better qualified than most to assess Gillespie’s impact, having played under the Australian at Zimbabwe franchise MidWest Rhinos, believes the win characterised the former fast bowler’s approach.
“I played under Jason in Zimbabwe for a couple of seasons, and the decision to go for the runs at Bristol summed up his style,” said Ballance. “He’s quite relaxed, but he’s also very positive in his attitude and a man who concentrates on the positives, and I think we needed that.
“You could see from the Gloucestershire game that we were confident we could chase down any total really. That summed up Jason for me because he’s very positive in everything he does.”
It is one thing, of course, to back yourself to score 400 on the last day; quite another to actually achieve it.
To that end, Yorkshire were indebted to Jaques and Ballance – wise old head and emerging young gun.
“It really helped to have Phil at the other end,” added Ballance. “It was great to bat with someone with a lot of experience and a lot of class to help me along. There were a few nerves out there; you always feel nerves when you’re chasing a score like that, but Phil helped to keep me calm. The win was a great team effort.”
Ballance’s century was his second for Yorkshire after his maiden Championship hundred against Warwickshire at Edgbaston in the penultimate game of last season.
It was also his first significant score this summer as he seeks to build on the high promise of 2011.
“It was the best I’ve played so far for Yorkshire and the most important innings as well, I think,” he said. “I’ve felt good every game I’ve played this season, and I felt I’d been batting well without having had that big score before Saturday. I knew that it was going to come, and I’m just glad it came when we needed it most.
“I think that victory will give us lots of confidence.”