• CA Chairman's XI v England XI, Tour match, Alice Springs, 1st day

Ballance stakes Ashes claim with half century

George Dobell in Alice Springs
November 29, 2013
Gary Ballance made a half-century batting at No. 3 © Getty Images

CA Chairman's XI 16 for 0 trail England XI 212 for 7 (Ballance 55) by 196 runs

Like many before them, several of this England squad arrived in Northern Territory looking for a land of opportunity, only to find it can be a harsh, unforgiving place.

This part of Australia is undeniably beautiful. But it can also be brutal. And, as England may be discovering, a single mistake can have disastrous consequences. Coming back from the Test defeat in Brisbane, if they could do it, might prove as great an achievement as anything in their recent history.

This two-day game against modest opposition should have been a chance for batsmen to find form and bowlers to find rhythm. Instead it has probed at weaknesses and provided another reminder of the poor form of some in the squad. It has been, to date, something of a wasted opportunity for England.

Certainly the continuing struggle of Matt Prior, with the bat at least, has extended well beyond the 'blip' phase. Not only has he scored just 56 runs in six first-class innings on this tour but, since mid-May, he has batted 24 times in first-class cricket and not made a half-century. Indeed, he has scored just 351 runs at an average of 16.71.

Quite where things have gone wrong for Prior is unclear. In May he was presented with England's Player of the Year award for the previous 12 months and there has been no absence of hard work since. But the man who was, not so long ago, talked about as a possible No. 6, is currently batting with the tentative uncertainly of a No. 8; pushing at balls in hope, rather than waiting with confidence. Here, after a couple of characteristically flowing strokes, he perished to an outside edge after flirting with one he would have been well advised to leave alone.

Joe Root's dress rehearsal as No. 3 - he opened here but is most likely to take Jonathan Trott's position in the second Test in Adelaide - was also underwhelming. Not for the first time, he perished attempting a back foot force and slicing to gully. It is not a low risk stroke on Australia's quick wickets.

Perhaps such an assessment undersells the performance of this Chairman's XI attack. On a pitch offering assistance throughout, the inexperienced seamers acquitted themselves impressively, maintaining a probing line and length and benefiting from a painfully slow outfield that gave batsmen little value for their strokes. Simon Mackin, a towering 21-year-old with Western Australia, was the pick, though Jake Doran, the 16-year-old keeper, will also remember the day with fondness after taking a fine, low catch to dismiss Ian Bell.

The one England player who enhanced his reputation was Gary Ballance. On the thin evidence available, it seems likely that Ballance will make his Test debut in Adelaide and bat at No. 6. Here he showed admirable patience in compiling a half-century - it took him 124 balls to get there - though how meaningful runs against the Chairman's XI spinners are ahead of a Test against Mitchell Johnson and co is debateable.

Ballance is not, at this stage, the finished article. For a start he is, by England's high standards, below the required fitness levels. But he has an excellent record, is highly regarded and, crucially, is the man in the right position at the right time. His chance of going on to make an unarguable case for selection was ended after a mix-up with Bell but, perhaps due as much to the failures of others as his own success, he looks to be in pole position. Opportunity knocks for him.

Meanwhile Michael Carberry clipped a half-volley to midwicket, Bell edged a decent one that he could have left and Ben Stokes' pleasing innings was ended by an outstanding catch at short leg.

Jonny Bairstow also batted nicely but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he does not feature particularly prominently in the England management's plans. Not only was he obliged to bat at No. 7 - surely too low for someone being considered for a spot in Adelaide - but the declaration also came before he had an opportunity to press his claims.

Both Steven Finn and Boyd Rankin then bowled with admirable pace, but neither made the batsmen play enough. Rankin, in particular, overdid the short ball. Neither have, to date, done their chances of usurping Chris Tremlett as third seamer much good.

There was, at least, encouraging news off the pitch. The sight of Kevin Pietersen and Stuart Broad working together in the nets - Pietersen as coach; Broad as batsman learning to combat the short ball - would have been impossible not so long ago. Pietersen, underlining his reaffirmed commitment to the team ethic, also appeared as 12th man in the dying overs of the day as Root was suffering from stomach trouble. He is expected to be fine in the morning.

Tim Bresnan would appear to have a much better chance of playing in the second Test, having performed creditably for the England Performance Programme in Queensland. He will join the Test squad on Sunday and undergo an assessment by the medical team. If he is deemed fully fit - and it is likely he will be - then he will be added to the squad for the rest of the tour.

But it was the batsmen, not the bowlers, who let England down in Brisbane. Bringing in Bresnan would be like calling the coast guard for a house fire.

The rest of the EPP squad - Tymal Mills, Moeen Ali et al - will next meet the full Test squad ahead of the Perth Test. There are no plans for any of them to be added to the Test squad at this stage, though they will be utilised as net bowlers in Perth.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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