Somerset v Yorkshire (day 3): Captain Gary Ballance adds to his case for England recall
But not even they could have anticipated just how close to a recall Ballance must now be. No one could.
With the first Test against South Africa less than a month away, Ballance is presenting an increasingly compelling case for a return, having lost his place only last winter.
Branded “unselectable” by certain pundits, the selectors will have to consider him very seriously for the match at Lord’s on July 6.
An unbeaten 98 at Taunton yesterday lifted Ballance’s seasonal aggregate to 799 first-class runs at an average of 99.87.
The hosts ended day three on 101-4, with Steve Patterson taking three of the wickets in a typically wholehearted performance.
Without Ballance’s innings, Yorkshire’s task would clearly have been appreciably harder, and it would be the visitors now who are fearing the worst.
Ballance, who would hand over control to vice-captain Tim Bresnan should England come calling, is comfortably the most in-form English batsman.
Only the Sri Lankan Kumar Sangakkara stands ahead of him in the first-class run-scoring charts, with 906 at an average of 90.60.
It is not only the volume of Ballance’s runs that commands attention, but the circumstances in which they have been scored.
This was the latest example of an innings produced exactly when the side most needed it, an innings that left him three short of 9,000 runs in first-class matches.
When play began yesterday beneath sunny skies, Ballance had 15 to his name, Peter Handscomb 57, and Yorkshire were 127-2, 105 ahead. The visitors, at that stage, were in the ascendancy, but they knew that a poor first session could have turned the contest back towards Somerset.
That this failed to happen was due to some determined batting in the early stages as Ballance and Handscomb dug in their heels.
Only nine runs came in the first half-hour as Somerset struggled to make inroads with the old ball, which gave their bowlers no margin for error.
The day was almost an hour old when Yorkshire finally lost their first wicket of the day on 158.
Handscomb, pushing forward to 19-year-old off-spinner Dom Bess, edged low to slip, where Marcus Trescothick took the catch. Handscomb made 70 from 133 balls with 11 fours, and his stand with Ballance was worth 65 in 25 overs.
Initially becalmed, Ballance became more expressive in the second hour before lunch, three times striking Bess to the boundary courtesy of a cover-drive, a cut, and a neat work off the legs.
The only other wicket to fall before the break was that of Jack Leaning, who went for three to leave Yorkshire 180-4.
Bess tossed one up outside off stump and Leaning, in trying to drive powerfully through the offside, edged to slip, where Trescothick took a sharp catch in front of his face.
Ballance cut the left-arm spinner Jack Leach for four to reach his half-century from 98 balls, and Matthew Waite struck Bess for three fours in four deliveries as Yorkshire took lunch on 213-4.
At that stage, Yorkshire led by 191 and were looking comfortable, but they ran into trouble straight after the break.
Four wickets fell for 10 runs inside nine overs as Somerset stormed back into the game.
Waite turned Leach to short-leg; Bess trapped Andrew Hodd lbw; Leach pinned Azeem Rafiq lbw, and Yorkshire slipped to 223-8, just 201 ahead, when Patterson was lured forward and caught behind off Leach.
With spin twins Bess and Leach bowling well, turning the ball just enough as opposed to extravagantly on the used surface, Somerset surprisingly chose to take the second new ball.
The move backfired as it only flew faster off the bat, Ballance and Karl Carver combining in a ninth-wicket stand of 51 in 21 overs that could be decisive in a low-scoring match.
It needed a fatal hesitation and a run-out to separate them, Ballance pushing Bess into the offside and going through for a single, Carver defeated at the non-striker’s end by a throw from Leach.
Ballance responded by upper-cutting Jamie Overton for a remarkable six over the wicketkeeper’s head before Ryan Sidebottom’s dismissal denied him a century, the pace bowler trapped lbw by Bess, who finished with 5-80, his fourth five-wicket haul in five Championship appearances.
Somerset’s run-chase was soon in distress, Dean Elgar strangled down the leg-side off Patterson and Tom Abell trapped lbw by the same bowler.
Patterson then picked up the key wicket of Trescothick, who feathered behind, before Waite pinned James Hildreth to leave the home side 49-4. But Steven Davies and Adam Hose combined in an unbroken stand of 52 to give their side a fighting chance.
It is Yorkshire, however, with their noses in front.