Another Alastair Cook failure overshadowed Gary Ballance’s second Test century, against India at Lord’s. Cook’s early exit apart, this was a serviceable day two of the second Investec Test for the hosts – and significantly better than that for Ballance, whose 110 underpinned England’s 219 for six in reply to 295 all out.
The captain’s wretched run of form, however, has become an inescapable issue.
It will remain so until either Cook rediscovers the prolific runscoring knack which has conspicuously eluded him for 26 Test innings, or his twin responsibilities as opener and leader are relaxed.
A critical point is surely close, but at least Ballance ensured England still have a feasible opportunity to break their run of nine Tests without a victory.
That was in major doubt when – after Cook and opening partner Sam Robson had been dismissed for the addition of nine runs by Bhuvneshwar Kumar (four for 46) – England faltered first to 31 for two and then 113 for four.
Number three Ballance, however, was not about to go easily on a relentlessly hot and sunny day.
The 24-year-old made the wrong sort of headlines on the eve of this match when pictures emerged of him apparently swaying and stripped to the waist in a Nottingham nightclub after the first-Test stalemate at Trent Bridge.
On the pitch, there were few indiscretions from a batsman who makes a particular virture of patience.
It took Ballance 54 balls, either side of lunch, to reach double-figures.
But his confidence to wait for bowler error, and punish it – always leaving and defending well in between – helped him pass 50 for the fourth time in only eight Test innings to date.
He eventually made it two centuries in three attempts at HQ, following his unbeaten 104 against Sri Lanka last month, characteristically cashing in with a sudden rush of five boundaries in nine balls as India’s fourth seamer Stuart Binny filled in overs with the old ball.
Ballance’s four-and-a-half-hour hundred contained 14 fours, from 186 balls, and arrived in a fifth-wicket stand of 98 with Moeen Ali.
Those riches appeared a long way off when Cook fell for just 10, to take his unenviable annual tally to 107 runs in eight innings.
Cook and Robson have yet to register a half-century stand, in six attempts together, after the England captain followed some movement across him and edged behind to a diving Mahendra Singh Dhoni to become the first of Kumar’s victims.
There were relatively few initial alarms for the openers on a pitch which appeared less green than when Cook put India in on day one.
Movement off the seam and in the air was not so lavish either, but India’s new-ball pair Kumar and Mohammed Shami bowled much more testing lines than England had 24 hours earlier.
In the 10th over, Robson edged Shami to second slip – where Ajinkya Rahane put down a regulation chance.
Two balls later, at the other end, Cook was dismissed – and Kumar soon had his second wicket, Robson aiming a drive only to also edge behind.
The nagging seamer struck again soon after lunch, in unexpected circumstances with a short ball which followed Ian Bell down the slope and had him gloving a simple catch to third slip.
Ballance remained assured, and unhurried – although there was one moment of fortune when he edged Binny between wicketkeeper and slip on 32.
Joe Root was a determined ally until he went unluckily lbw to Ravindra Jadeja, having apparently got an inside-edge on to his pad in forward-defence.
Moeen lent more lasting support until he missed a flick to leg to give part-time off-spinner Murali Vijay his maiden Test wicket.
When Kumar then returned with the second new ball to have Ballance caught-behind down the leg-side, it was India who again edged the honours.
Cook’s day had begun with a minor morale boost, when he clung on at the second attempt to a straightforward slip catch – his 100th in Tests – to end the India innings for the addition of only five runs, after Ben Stokes found Shami’s edge.
The early success proved no good omen for the under-pressure captain, but the reliable Ballance bailed England out.