YORKSHIRE’S bid to make 2021 their year begins with a pair of two-day friendlies at home and away next week.

The White Rose squad will be split to face Durham at Emerald Headingley on Monday and Tuesday as well as Middlesex at Merchant Taylors’ School in Northwood, with both games being played behind closed doors.

Gary Ballance will return to action for the first time since the end of 2019 after illness ruled him out of the whole of last season’s shortened campaign.

“Gary’s in a good place,” said coach Andrew Gale as he delivered news of a huge boost for the county.

“He’s actually had what is called a mallet finger. It’s basically a small dislocation, and he’s been wearing a splint for three weeks. But next week will be his first without it.

“He’s still been able to bat in practice, but just not do any fielding. He might need hiding a bit, but he will be ready to field next week.”

Coach Gale will oversee the Middlesex friendly, where there will be more of a first-team presence.

He explained: “It’s not going to be a first team and a second team as such, but we will lean more towards it being a first-team game down at Middlesex just because they’ve got a (training) marquee down there.

“If it rains, at least the lads can still get some practice in outside rather than just being forced back into the indoor school.

“I think it will also be good to get the group of players together away from Headingley because we’ve obviously not had a pre-season tour this time.

“With them being in training bubbles of five, they have gone through periods where they haven’t seen a great deal of each other.”

The small indoor training groups have been extended in recent weeks for fielding sessions on the nearby Leeds Beckett University astroturf pitches, while the players have been outside on grass at Headingley for the first time this week.

“You could definitely see the excitement when they were out fielding on the grass at Headingley for the first time on Monday,” said Gale. “They were really throwing themselves around.

“As far as preparation goes, I actually think the lads have enjoyed this pre-season more than any other.

“An overseas tour would have been the icing on the cake, but the way we’ve gone about things is probably here to stay.

“I say that because the lads, being in smaller groups, have had far more coaching attention than ever before.

“That’s meant long days for the coaching staff, but they’ve been brilliant and the lads have been very appreciative of that.

“I think, given the time spent with coaches, the lads are better prepared than they’ve ever been.”

While Duanne Olivier is unavailable due to quarantine - he finishes his latest 10-day period early next week - Gale has three injuries to contend with in Adam Lyth and Jordan Thompson (both calf) and Dom Leech (back).

With three weeks to go until the County Championship opener against Glamorgan at Headingley, excitement and confidence is definitely building for Gale and his players.

“They are a great group, an absolute pleasure to work with,” he said. “The work ethic around the lads is top drawer. They push themselves hard.

“I think as a cricketer you go through different phases. ‘Can I get in the first team?’ being the first one. You worry about that alone really.

“Then when you get in and show you can be successful, you then focus more on the team. And a lot of our lads are in that second stage.

“They are now going, ‘Right, I can perform in the first team, can I win trophies for Yorkshire?’ That kind of thing excites me.

“I think it’s very realistic to challenge for trophies.

“There’s more expectation this year because we have got a group of players who have shown they can perform against the best teams in the country over the last couple of seasons.

“A couple of years ago, it was about taking that expectation off them. But they are ready to step up and take that on now.”