Gary Ballance offers positive boost to Yorkshire CCC ahead of 2021 season

OF all the positives to be taken from Yorkshire’s two-day practice match against Middlesex at Northwood earlier this week perhaps the most striking and uplifting was the return to action – and runs – of Gary Ballance.

Yorkshire's Gary Ballance hits out against Essex. Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com

The former England man, who missed last season’s truncated campaign through illness, top-scored with 52 in the Yorkshire first innings and was the only visiting player to make a half-century in the fixture at Merchant Taylors’ School ground.

Late last August, about three weeks after the season started, Yorkshire issued a statement in which they explained that Ballance had been unable to feature due to “heightened feelings of anxiety and stress following a long period of isolation due to the Covid-19 lockdown, his own recent viral illness and other personal factors”.

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No timescale was given for his return, and it was said that his post-viral symptoms (he elicited symptoms of coronavirus but twice tested negative) had affected his physical preparations to the extent that although he could undertake some training, he felt too weak to actually play.

England captain Joe Root is available for at least two of Yorkshire's County Championhip fixtures. Picture: Nick Potts/PA

Fast forward seven months and, as his innings at Northwood showed, Ballance is happily restored to good health and ready to help kickstart Yorkshire’s attempt to win their first County Championship title since 2015.

The trademark nudges and nurdles were in plentiful evidence – interspersed with the occasional left-hander’s flourish – and the reassuring sight of the 31-year-old at the crease was one to warm the cockles of those Yorkshire supporters monitoring the action on the live stream.

For Martyn Moxon, the club’s director of cricket, the return to action of Ballance – whose last competitive innings came in September 2019 – is akin to having a new player on the books.

Not just any player, mark you, but one who comes if not quite with the guarantee of 1,000 Championship runs a season to go with impressively consistent white-ball contributions, then at least the likelihood of productive harvests.

Yorkshire's Dawid Malan will miss eight County Championship games because of his IPL commitments. Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com

“I think it’s given everybody a lift, really, to have Gary back,” said Moxon, “and let’s hope it’s the start of a really good season for him. It’s almost like having a new signing. He’s in good spirits at the moment. The signs are very positive. He’s in a good place, and long may it continue.

“He played very patiently at Middlesex, the sort of role that we know he can play (Ballance batted for three hours, 17 minutes and faced 137 deliveries).

“I think for any batsman it’s important just to get time in the middle at this time of year, and he set his stall out to do that.

“He’s hopefully back to his best now and having him around has been really good.”

Yorkshire CCC director of cricket, Martyn Moxon. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe.

Along with the lift that it gives to the rest of the team, with Ballance the axis around which players such as Tom Kohler-Cadmore and Harry Brook can thrive, the return of a man who played 39 times for England between 2013 and 2017 also helps to compensate for the loss of Dawid Malan, who will miss up to eight Championship games due to his involvement in the Indian Premier League.

Malan was Yorkshire’s leading run-scorer in red-ball cricket last year, so to have Ballance and also England Test captain Joe Root available from the start of the season is a self-evident tonic.

“Having Gary back, and obviously Joe playing some of the games too, certainly mitigates not having Dawid with us at the start of the season,” added Moxon.

“That’s really good news for us, I think, and hopefully it will help us to hit the ground running.”

Of Root, who will play the first two Championship games, at home to Glamorgan and away to Kent, Moxon said: “We’re going to take it game-by-game after those first two matches.

“I think he’ll probably play some more (Championship games before the Tests start), but how much I guess will depend on how he’s feeling and various things.

“We’re not even talking about how many, to be honest. It’s just good to have him back, and we’ll take it as we go.”

Yorkshire play seven Championship matches before the first Test against New Zealand at Lord’s on June 2.

With the Roses game at Old Trafford presumably too close to that fixture (it is scheduled to end on May 30), Yorkshire will hope to get Root for at least four of those Championship games, perhaps even five.

He will not play in the two upcoming university games – Yorkshire host Leeds-Bradford from Monday and then Durham from the following Saturday, both at Headingley, but he will begin his preparations during that Durham university fixture for the Championship opener against Glamorgan at Headingley on April 8, when he could line up against his younger brother, Billy.

“We haven’t yet decided on our teams for the university games,” said Moxon, with Yorkshire also playing a two-day practice match at Derby, starting today, where the same squad that featured at Northwood has been joined by Dom Bess.

“A lot will depend on the weather, so we’re going to keep things flexible.”

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