Ballance sets sights on Ashes spot

THE statistics would suggest that England may be auditioning the wrong man for a call-up to their Ashes squad by running the rule over Nottinghamshire’s James Taylor in preference to Yorkshire’s Gary Ballance.

Gary Ballance

Whereas Taylor has scored 857 first-class runs this summer in 18 innings at 53.56, Ballance has struck 802 in five fewer innings at the superior average of 61.69.

Ballance has only once had a single-figure score this season in 26 innings in all cricket, a remarkable level of consistency.

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However, it is Taylor who will face the Australians today in a three-day game at Hove when he guests for Sussex. He is poised to be named in the squad for Thursday’s third Test at Old Trafford as cover for Kevin Pietersen (calf).

Although England remain hopeful that Pietersen will be fit, there is no doubt that Ballance, the outstanding 23-year-old left-hander, is firmly in the selectors thoughts – and rightly so.

The impressive Taylor may be the next cab off the rank, having played two Tests last summer against South Africa, the first of them at Headingley, but he could soon be overtaken by Ballance, who is striving to follow Yorkshire colleagues Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow and Tim Bresnan into the Test team.

It is a proud state of affairs for the county club and there was tacit recognition for Ballance when he netted with England prior to the second Test against New Zealand at Headingley in May, after which he was called-up for the Twenty20 series in which he did not play.

For now, the Zimbabwe-born player is flattered to be spoken of as a potential Test candidate and realistic in his assessment of where he stands.

“It’s nice that people are talking about me, but I don’t want to get too ahead of myself,” said Ballance.

“There’s lots of good middle-order batsmen around the country who are doing well, and I’ve just got to keep scoring runs for Yorkshire and, if I get the call one day, then great.

“Whoever England go with this time, I’m sure he’ll do a good job.

“James Taylor is a very good player and has done well in county cricket for a long time and played a few Tests and looked like he belonged there, so I’m sure that if he gets called up he’ll do very well.”

Some feel that Taylor, 23, has been harshly treated by the selectors, with Bairstow having forged ahead of him by scoring 95 and 54 against South Africa at Lord’s last summer.

Bairstow’s success, along with that of Root and Bresnan, is an added spur to Ballance, whose statistics also outshine fellow England contenders Samit Patel (824 first-class runs at 48.47) and Ravi Bopara (342 at 31.09).

“It’s very inspiring to see my Yorkshire team-mates doing so well at international level,” said Ballance.

“Hopefully, I can follow in their footsteps and it definitely gives me extra motivation to keep improving and keep scoring runs for Yorkshire.

“Obviously ‘Brez’ has been doing it for England for a long while now and Jonny has scored important runs for England, while Joe has done very well since coming into the Test team.

“It was great to see Joe get his first Test hundred at Headingley recently and then to back it up with his first Ashes hundred at Lord’s the other day was a brilliant effort.”

Ballance, who averages 52 in first-class cricket and 53 in List A cricket, relished training with the England squad in May and has been impressed with their performances in the Ashes.

England can retain the urn with victory in Manchester after their 14-run win at Trent Bridge and 347-run triumph at Lord’s, where Root became England’s youngest Ashes centurion at 22 years and 202 days.

“England are going great and you couldn’t have asked for a better start,” added Ballance.

“The Aussies are fighters and it’s going to be a tough game at Old Trafford, but England have performed brilliantly so far and I’m sure that if they play their best cricket they will come out on top again.

“I really enjoyed my time netting with the squad prior to the New Zealand Test; it was great to be involved and good to see how it all works, and I did a bit of work with Graham Gooch (England’s batting coach).

“They were all very friendly and welcoming.”

One man perfectly placed to judge Ballance’s international claims is Martyn Moxon, the Yorkshire director of cricket and former England opening batsman.

“I know they’re looking at Gaz and that they like what they see,” said Moxon. “He’s on the radar, without doubt, and it will be interesting to see who they pick on this occasion.

“I think there’s a big clue with Taylor having been picked to play for Sussex, but I don’t think Gaz is too far away.

“He’s mentally very strong and knows his game, he’s equally happy against pace and spin and he’s got the temperament for the big stage.”

Yorkshire face Nottinghamshire – sans Sussex guest Taylor – in the Twenty20 Cup at Trent Bridge tonight (6.00pm start), their hopes of reaching the quarter-finals ending last night when Durham beat Leicestershire.

Ben Stokes and Gareth Breese propelled Durham to a third successive win, sharing an unbroken sixth-wicket stand of 64 runs in 5.4 overs to see their side to a five-wicket win with two overs to spare chasing 119-7.

With one group game left at home to Derbyshire on Sunday, Durham still have a slim chance of qualifying for the quarter-finals.