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Ballance century rescues England

The Report by David Hopps
July 18, 2014 « Chelsea complete signing of Luis | Rashid's burst takes Yorkshire top »

England 219 for 6 (Ballance 110, Kumar 4-46) trail India 295 by 76 runs
Live scorecard and ball-by-ball details

Gary Ballance could become England's rock © Getty Images
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Another failure for Alastair Cook, an increasingly beleaguered England captain, followed by a long, hard grind against a persistent India attack on London's hottest day of the year: this Lord's Test match Friday was never going to grant its favours easily. But Gary Ballance does not look like a batsman who needs an easy life. Increasingly, he suggests he is the rock on which England can build.

Andy Flower, England's previous coach, praised Jonathan Trott as his rock when Trott's departure from last winter's Ashes tour proved to a harbinger of their decline. It might just be that Peter Moores, and his selection panel, have unearthed a rock of his own. Not a gurning rock given to idiosyncratic pitch markings, but a red faced, red necked rock winning seeping admiration among England observers.

There is no instant appeal in Ballance, no flamboyance, no fripperies, no manly tattoo or golden curls. He reddens up so quickly that in a series without DRS he is his own walking Hot Spot. On an easing pitch, his innings did not quite have the brilliance of Ajinkya Rahane's on the first day. But there is resourcefulness by the bucketload.

What he again displayed in his second Test hundred at Lord's this summer - Sri Lanka, like India, have also learned of his merit - was a strong technique, based on a preference for the back foot, a fondness for shots square on the off side vaguely reminiscent of Andrew Strauss and, as he established himself, some full-bodied drives from strong forearms. He batted further forward than he normally does to combat the seam. He has dealt with the Lord's slope with aplomb - in his other match here he made a hundred for Yorkshire. He looks to be a combative, thinking cricketer.

He will curse his misfortune as he fell to the third over with the second new ball, a leg side strangle won by a little bit of wayward outswing from Bhuvneshwar Kumar, leaving him with four wickets for an impressive day. Matt Prior joined the nightwatchman, Liam Plunkett, who had been sent out more than seven overs from the close to protect him. Closing without further damage at 219 for 6, England trailed by 76 runs.

This has been an excellent contest and India performed with determination on an easing pitch, the bowlers maintaining good lines throughout the day and their ground fielding reliable. The spinners are also in this game on a dry, grassy surface - not that either side is fielding one of any renown.

Ballance should have fallen on 32 when he edged Stuart Binny between MS Dhoni and Shikhar Dhawan at first slip, both of them equally culpable for not responding. Binny, bowling his medium-paced wobblers on the ground where his father, Roger, performed so well in the 1983 World Cup final, should have marked his second over in his second Test with a first Test wicket.

Instead, Binny became a catalyst for his century: five boundaries struck off him in eight balls. He drove him through the off side off back and front foot then clipped Binny for two more teeth-gritting boundaries in his next over to pass 100. Determined not to give it away, he produced a barn-door defence to the next ball only for his timing to be so perfect by then that it whistled for four down the ground.

It was a strong-willed, grounded response by Ballance, considering that he arrived at Lord's for the start of the match to discover that he had achieved Minor Celebrity status, in the form of newspaper photographs of a boozy night in in Nottingham after the Trent Bridge Test and the gentlest of reminders from England about his public image. His hundred achieved, he opted to keep his shirt on.

England are under considerable pressure. They suffered all day for their failure to take advantage of excellent bowling conditions on the day one. India's first-innings 295 was inflated; England's batsmen were deflated. India's bowlers stuck impressively to basic principles in conditions where high humidity encouraged the swing bowlers and there was still some nibble in the pitch, although neither were as evident as on the opening day when Rahane played with such a flourish in making 103.

Cook's day started well when he held a juggling catch at first slip - Ben Stokes finding Mohammed Shami's edge in the second over of the day - to ensure that India's last pair added only five to their overnight total: this time at least there would be no last-wicket heroics.

But his demoralising run of scores will again introduce the conversation England's hierarchy simply does not want to hear: his right to the England captaincy. He is beset by criticism both of his tactical nous and dried-up batting returns. It is 26 innings since he Cook scored the last of his England record 25 hundreds, a run during which his average has dropped into the 20s.

His footwork was static as Kumar caught him on the crease with an outswinger that continued down the slope from a good length. Dhoni collected an easy catch from a languid push, leaving Cook to reflect on a summer of mounting misery as he returned to the pavilion.

Kumar deserved recognition for his part in Cook's wicket. He bowled him an over of inswingers the previous over before producing one which left Cook, ensuring that his otherwise confident and well-managed start fell prey to what has now become a recognisable bat dangle.

Criticism sounded immediately. Geoffrey Boycott, commentating on BBC Radio's Test Match Special, called for Cook to return to county cricket to return his form. But even if England took such a desperate move, the fixture list would afford him no release with the counties about to commit to a month of predominantly limited-overs cricket.

Releasing Cook from the strains of captaincy is equally difficult. England, who have not won for nine Tests, their worst run in 20 years, have pinned their entire strategy on allowing Cook to develop a side in his own image and there are no obvious contenders to replace him. His failures, though, cannot continue for ever, especially if England go behind in the series.

Sam Robson, who was dropped off Shami the over before Cook was dismissed - a regulation chance for Rahane at second slip - did not make good his let off. He became Kumar's second victim when he drove at one that faded down the slope, giving Dhoni another simple catch.

Ian Bell and Joe Root perished in the afternoon. Bell's form has also lapsed and he gave Kumar a third wicket when he attempted to leave a ball that bounced and chased him from just short of a length and gloved to Ravindra Jadeja at third slip, a shaken response to a challenging but by no means unplayable ball.

Root's wicket belonged to Jadeja. He was beaten in the flight by a ball which skidded into his pads, but it was a bad decision by umpire Bruce Oxenford who missed an inside nick. Ballance and Moeen Ali then assembled a fifth-wicket stand of 98 after tea before Moeen's careful resistance ended with quite a weak lbw when M Vijay was granted a brief perambulation.

David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo

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