Gary Ballance probably doesn’t have fond memories of his Test debut at Sydney in January 2014. Sconned by Mitchell Johnson, he made just seven and 18 as England lost heavily and succumbed to their third whitewash in Ashes history. But four years is long enough for entire careers to play out and if he was pregnant with potential back then, he returns to Australia now very much ensconced in that dreaded place of reckoning for cricketers – the Last Chance Saloon (LCS).
In their bid to escape it the LCS elicits different responses from different players. For some, guarded caution is the way out of its pitiless confines while others adopt a gambler’s abandon, freeing themselves from their usual method with the argument that it was perhaps that which got them there in the first place. There is no definitive way to abscond and not all do.
Ballance is 27, still young for a batsman, so it seems curious speaking of him as one facing the encroaching shadow of a future free of international cricket. It is not as if he has not known success either, having made four Test hundreds in his first nine Tests when he also averaged 61.5. But he has slumped since, his next 14 Tests yielding just 637 runs at 24.5. Worse still, it appears that he had been found out, a quirk in his technique against pace bowlers – where he goes back deep in his crease and barely plays forward – being exposed by those leather flingers with more than an amoeba’s brain, which it seems is many.
The net result has been that those bowlers have first pushed him back with balls into his rib cage to disturb his balance and then pitched it up to have him bowled, lbw or caught behind. It sounds simple but isn’t though swingers like South Africa’s Vernon Philander and New Zealand’s Trent Boult and Tim Southee have been particularly effective at dismissing.
So bad has Ballance looked, at times, that he has been dropped thrice from England’s Test side in his last ten matches. Not many get a fourth chance after that but here he is off to Oz, a good summer with Yorkshire behind him and the wholehearted backing of Joe Root, a county colleague and England captain.
Ballance’s problems stem not from a reluctance to get forward but because he is not comfortable against the short ball. Playing a long way back, as he does, gives him more time to deal with it though at the expense of exposing his front pad and stumps to attack from balls someone like Root would treat as a half-volley.
Unless the ball swings his technique, which he no doubt has tried to tweak in the interim, may not be so exposed in Australia. If it isn’t, that gives him a good chance of impressing and escaping the LCS. Except, that, once you are in it getting out comes at roughly double the price of entry, at least for batsmen. So if averaging 24 got him in there he will need to average at least 45 to break free.
Some succeed some don’t, with Andrew Strauss being a notable escapee back in 2008. Strauss arrived for the final Test against New Zealand in Napier having not made a hundred in his last 29 innings and with his international career on the line. Curiously, he was put up for interview before the match and his jitters were palpable. It was no surprise then, batting out of position at number three, when he made nought in the first innings, his hesitant drive being caught in the gully.
In the second, with England on top but him still at three, he was much bolder and responded with a career best 177 as he and Ian Bell took the match out of New Zealand’s reach. It was a defining moment for Strauss and showed great character. He survived returning firstly to open the innings with Alastair Cook, then to captain England after Kevin Pietersen. Indeed, he played another 54 Tests after Napier, more than half his eventual tally and definitive proof, if any were needed, that not only do some escape the LCS they thrive thereafter as well.
Although almost unthinkable for someone who was a fixture in the side during the 1980s, David Gower also found himself in the LCS having gone 12 innings in 1990 with only one half-century to show for it. That was the summer of the low-seamed ball and batsmen were making hay every day, all except him. But like Strauss, just when the chop threatened in the final Test of the summer against India, Gower made an unbeaten 157 at the Oval and booked his berth to Australia for the Ashes.
Things came to head again on that tour though this time it was a personality clash between him and Graham Gooch, England’s captain. One Tiger Moth ride and a few casual dismissals later, in a series England lost 3-0, and Gooch decided the team were better off without Gower, at least on overseas tours. Three more home Tests against Pakistan followed but that was it, though this time it was the long pasture rather than the LCS which beckoned.
It is difficult to think of too many bowlers languishing in the LCS, as injury was as much a curtailer of careers as bad form. One example would be Ian Salisbury, who bowled leg-spin, an unusual specialism for England teams during the era in which he played, which was from 1992 until 2000. His, against Pakistan at Lord’s, was his most successful game in terms of wickets (five), though England lost a close match. Thereafter it was mostly downhill, though he was caught unprepared in India where he was unfairly thrust into the first two Tests after England’s two main spinners, Phil Tufnell and John Emburey, suffered crises of confidence. Salisbury had been on hand as England’s net bowler and was not prepared for the carnage which followed.
Having been used every two years or so by England, mainly abroad, he entered the LCS, ironically, in the alcoholically dry country of Pakistan in late 2000. But instead of rising to his predicament, as our batting examples had done, he took 1-193 over three Tests and never played for his country again.
In his stead, the selectors turned to the finger spin of Ashley Giles, Robert Croft, Richard Dawson and for one last time in 2001, Phil Tufnell – Tuffers being the most natural of all denizens of the LCS providing it served vodka tonic and had a nice sofa to kip on.