NEXT BIG THING Number 2: Gary Ballance, aged 23, England

It won’t be to everyone’s taste when Zimbabwe-born Gary Ballance makes the seemingly inevitable move up to the full England international ranks. Born in Harare, he will be another ‘import’ following Pietersen, Trott, Prior et al to wear the three lions.

In an ideal world Ballance would be representing Zimbabwe, but there are few idyllic places and Zimbabwe is less ideal than most.

On 10 February 2004, as their nation embarked on hosting its first World Cup, Andy Flower and Henry Olonga released a statement to journalists at the Harare Sports Club to denounce the ‘death of democracy’ in their country.

The pair took the field wearing black armbands to protest against President Robert Mugabe’s ‘regime’ to highlight human rights abuses and thus threw away their international careers, put their lives in danger and faced an exiled future. The protest was sparked when a friend took Flower to visit his old farm which was unrecognisable after the government’s land reforms.

Flower and Olonga said in their statement, “It is impossible to ignore what is happening in Zimbabwe. Although we are just professional cricketers, we do have a conscience and feelings.”

“We believe that if we remain silent that will be taken as a sign that either we do not care or we condone what is happening in Zimbabwe.

“We believe that it is important to stand up for what is right.”

Ballance swept the board at the Yorkshire CCC Awards ceremony in 2012

Not a huge amount has changed and although domestic cricket in Zimbabwe is getting stronger (Ballance has played two English winters for Mid West Rhinos), Mugabe is still in charge of a country that, to be polite, could be run better.

Elections last week may spark change, but cricketers’ careers are finite and chances need seizing.

Ballance was 14-years-old and about to be educated at Harrow Public School for whom he secured victory over Eton with an unbeaten century at Lord’s. He impressed for Zimbabwe at the Under-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka before learning his trade firstly with Derbyshire as a 16-year-old before moving up the M1 motorway to join a Yorkshire Academy famed for prodigious output.

As a player he is well named. Stocky, compact and with a broad bat he possesses a powerful range of shots, particularly picking up a length over ‘cow corner’ in the one-day arena.

The left-hander has grown year-on-year in all forms of the game, but it was a winter in Zimbabwe that kick-started an already promising career.

In any walk of life people need validation that they are good enough and successive winters spent with the Mid West Rhinos franchise in Zimbabwe saw him score his maiden first-class centuries and a double ton in the 2010/11 season.

In the 2011-12 season he passed 1,000 first-class runs in only 14 innings and captained the side to the final of the 50-overs Coca-Cola Cup competition. He had been validated.

He made his Yorkshire debut during their 2011 relegation season and scored 717 runs at 42.17 apiece despite many senior heads failing around him. He was key to the White Rose counties return to the top flight a year later when 613 Championship runs included an unbeaten 121 as Yorkshire completed the second biggest successful run chase in their history against Gloucestershire at Bristol in May.

It was another huge milestone in the ‘am I good enough’ learning curve as he emphatically saw his team across the line with consecutive sixes as they knocked off a target of 400 to win in 110 overs to win by four wickets.

Securing victory of Trinidad & Tobago at the Champions League with Adil Rashid

The confidence gained seaped into all formats as he topped Yorkshire’s CB40 averages with 469 runs at 58.62, including a 91-ball 103 not out against the Unicorns.

He made 356 t20 runs and scored two sublime half-centuries in the Champions League in South Africa in October 2012 as a depleted Yorkshire squad beat Trinidad & Tobago to progress and then ran the mighty Chennai Super Kings close in the main draw.

Ballance has never made any secret of the fact he wants to play for England and follow Jonny Bairstow and Joe Root from the Yorkshire Academy onto the biggest stage.

“It’s given me some confidence that I’ve been noticed and hopefully I can keep scoring runs for Yorkshire and you never know where that will take me in the next few years,” he said. “I think one-day cricket is probably my strongest form of the game at the moment and if I can get in by scoring runs in all forms, that might be my way in.”

The England selectors are rightly sniffing around the 23-year-old who can go through the gears of an innings with ease.

He has the capacity to score big and long or to bully attacks into submission. In one-day cricket he has a natural knack of reading the position of a match and playing accordingly. It’s no coincidence that in many of Yorkshire’s successful one-day chases in recent seasons that Ballance has been there to full stop the win.

He was selected for the England Lions squad to play a series of one-day matches in Australia in February 2013 and was one of the few successes of an otherwise dismal trip.

He comes awake at the crease - otherwise he has a reputation of being able to sleep anywhere!

Selected to England’s t20 squad to play New Zealand in 2013 he did not feature, but his 802 Championship runs at 61.69 have included three centuries and 2 fifties so far this season and his taxi is moving unerringly close to the front of the next cab off the rank queue.

James Taylor of Nottinghamshire beat him into the squad for the third Ashes Test when Kevin Pietersen had injury doubts, but Ballance is hard on his heels.

Those that say his 50-plus first-class career average has been boosted by his time in Zimbabwe would be correct, although he was the standout batsman when he played there and the standard is better than outsiders believe. In 29 innings for the Mid West Rhinos he averages 67.07 and for Yorkshire his first-class average is a shade under 47.

James Taylor averages 48.75, but there are doubts about his technique at senior level. It would be a major surprise if they were both not on the plane for the senior Ashes tour this winter.

Ballance is more understated than Flower and Olonga. He’s more inclined to accumulate runs and go about his business his own way.

Zimbabwe will feel the pain of his departure as he accumulates runs for England. A long international career is just around the corner.

And, if you want to know if he can field?

Just watch this incredible catch he took for Yorkshire against Leicestershire in a 2013 Friends Life t20 match at Headingley….!

James Buttler

James has been working as a journalist and broadcaster in cricket since 2006 and was an avid fan for many years before that.
As the editor of World Cricket Badger he is intent on building the website to give quality coverage of the domestic game around the world.
He is also the presenter of the Cricket Badger Radio Show on Radio Yorkshire every Tuesday evening between 7-9pm UK time.
James was the full-time Media Manager at Yorkshire County Cricket Club between 2007 and 2010.
James is a published author, a writer/video contributor to many cricket publications and a complete cricket badger!

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