Ballance shines for Lions

Yorkshire's Gary Ballance made 104 for England Lions against Australia
Yorkshire's Gary Ballance made 104 for England Lions against Australia

England Lions acquitted themselves creditably on the first day of the fixture against Australia at the County Ground.

Replacing the Edgbaston-bound Northamptonshire, the national side’s sort of second string - the side was picked for obvious reasons from 14 rather than 18 counties - totalled 269-7 after winning the toss on a day shortened slightly by morning rain.

England Lions V Australia at Northants County Ground.

England Lions V Australia at Northants County Ground.

Gary Ballance was the standout performer for the home side with a very good century against a limited attack who stuck to their task throughout.

Two-day games, to all extents and purposes, don’t exist for any particular reason.

They’re not long enough to be considered a first-class fixture, for that reason they don’t count on an individual cricketer’s record and the purpose of them seems to be to fill holes in a schedule for the sake of filling holes.

But while that may be the case, they’ve been around for a while now and they aren’t going to go away just because this particular correspondent isn’t a fan.

England Lions V Australia at Northants County Ground.

England Lions V Australia at Northants County Ground.

And anyway, with the Australians enduring a dismal visit to these shores, there was that bit extra riding on the whole encounter.

That was evident with the side fielded by the tourists who understandably rested their frontline seamers but, Michael Clarke and Chris Rogers aside, included all of their other batsmen on the teamsheet.

If the score in the Ashes series was the other way round there would have been a good chance a few state cricketers playing league cricket over here may have got a call so the main protagonists could put their feet up.

But given their collective efforts in the four Tests to date, it wouldn’t be stretching things to suggest that a handful of international careers are on the line in addition to the need for some semblance of form to be found ahead of The Oval encounter on Wednesday.

Taking all that into account, and considering that the forecast for tomorrow is pretty horrid, having to field first might not have represented the ideal scenario when play finally got going at 2pm.

It was immediately apparent that the used surface being utilised was lacking in the elements of pace and carry but even with little to work with, the pairing of Jason Faulkner and Mitchell Starc were tidy enough with the new ball.

The former claimed an early breakthrough when Luke Wells hung his bat indecisively at a length ball and there was the odd play and miss in the opening stages.

With no other recognised seamers, it was left to David Warner, who normally bowls part-time leg-spin, to serve up some medium pace but this experiment didn’t last long and neither should his career in this field.

That meant spin got an early airing and it almost paid dividends but Shane Watson, at slip, grassed a relatively simple chance off Nathan Lyon with Alex Lees the beneficiary.

The same combination accounted for the Yorkshireman not too long afterwards and doubled up before the score reached three figures when Eoin Morgan edged a flat-footed drive.

All the while Moeen Ali was going about his business in an unfussy manner at the other end and the odd miscue aside when he attempted to go aerial off Ashton Agar, he appeared in no trouble at all.

Ballance, who is increasingly being tipped to earn senior honours sooner rather than later, was in the same boat and the duo, in their contrasting styles scored freely until, shortly after the tea break, Ali pushed at Starc and edged to second slip.

The rest of the evening session belonged to Ballance who throughout his effort batted with a calm assurance that belongs to someone in excellent form.

While more fluent against spin, through the offside predominantly, he didn’t look too troubled by the seamers and coasted to a century, bringing up the milestone with a swipe for six off Steve Smith’s erratic leg-spin.

This came in the wake of Smith enticing Jos Buttler to swat a filthy full toss to deep midwicket and the ball after Ballance had received a generous ovation from the good-sized crowd, he contrived to miss a similar delivery and was hit in front.

The rest was playing out time and the visitors’ chance to actually gain something from their visit to the midlands will come tomorrow when, should the rain stay away, they get a chance to stage a reply.