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September 5, 2011
Now that they have achieved one of their stated goals - that of becoming the No. 1 team in Test cricket - England's next challenge is to emulate that achievement in the one-day arena. But if one batsman epitomises the problem of translating such success across formats, it is Ian Bell, whose silken batting in Tests has been one of the major reasons for England's recent rise, but whose role in the shortened versions of the game remains up in the air.
Bell has played in just seven of England's 38 Twenty20s (and did not feature in last week's one-off at Old Trafford), while his one-day career includes two World Cup campaigns but just one century in 103 appearances. That solitary score came on India's last tour of England in 2007 - at the Rose Bowl, no less - when he and Alastair Cook added 178 for the second wicket in a comprehensive victory. However, an overall average of 34.48, and a strike-rate of 72.69, provide damning evidence of his shortcomings to date.
The current India series, in Bell's opinion, is a chance to start making amends. Kevin Pietersen's absence has created a vacancy at No. 4 which, he believes, will suit his accumulative style much better than was the case earlier in the season, when he was inked in at No. 6 against Sri Lanka, with a licence to play his shots, but made 81 runs from 117 balls all told.
"I was desperate to give it a good go, but I didn't feel I had done it as well as I possibly could have done," he admitted. "The majority of the time I [was going] in with 15 overs to go and had to work on scoring boundaries from ball one. I'm not the kind of guy who is going to hit the ball into a few rows back, and I have to go over extra cover, or whatever, and use the skills that I have and find boundaries that way."
Part of the problem for England at present is that they have too many players who need to build up a head of steam - such as Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott, who are bankers in the top three - and too few who are capable of raising the run-rate from a standing start. In the right conditions Craig Kieswetter can do just that, although he has struggled with the moving ball, while Ben Stokes hasn't yet had a chance to strut his stuff.
Only Eoin Morgan has the proven versatility to cope with all situations than arise in 50-over cricket, but given the fluency of his Test run-making, Bell ought to be capable of making the necessary adjustments. "I try to learn off Morgs in how he plays the spinners and scores boundaries off the front and back foot," he said. "I want to be a cricketer improving all the time in one-dayers and Test cricket so you have to learn and be open to new things. The game is going forward all the time and you have to stay with it."
His stated preference, however, is to be allowed the time to "go through the gears", as he puts it. "I can still hit sixes. I can do it against spinners in Test matches so I can do it in a ODI, but if you are coming in late, you actually [have to be] able to clear your leg, which is not something I grew up doing," he said. "I grew up trying to get a nice cover-drive and play Test cricket, whereas young lads now grow up looking at Twenty20 and hitting the ball, and that becomes a lot easier to them to do that, rather than someone who grew up looking to play Test cricket."
That is where the likes of Stokes, Alex Hales and Jos Buttler - all of whom have turned professional since the advent of Twenty20 cricket - have the change to steal a march on their elder colleagues. "You can see the skills they come in with now," said Bell. "They have more skills than batters ten years ago would have. The little sweeps with fine-leg up, to clearing your leg is, I guess, just what modern cricketers grow up with. We are working on it and I'm desperate to improve in my one-day cricket because that's what you are going to have to do - that's the way it's going."
That need to get down and dirty is something that Bell has been actively practising since the end of the Test campaign, but ultimately, he wants to be able to stick to what he knows best. As Mahela Jayawardene has demonstrated throughout a brilliant one-day career, there is a place for graceful shot-making in the shorter form of the game. All that matters is the speed at which the scoreboard ticks over, not the speed at which the ball sails to the boundary.
"Speaking to Goochy, there are different ways to score runs," he said. "You can pick the ball over midwicket or you can lift it over extra cover. There are a lot of shots. There is no point me trying to become something I'm not. I have to play to my strengths. I have to pick the gap like I do in Test cricket.
"We're all trying to score at a run a ball. Andy Flower pushes us hard to score at a run a ball. With the spinners on, we want to score off every ball bowled and push down the number of dot balls in the innings. That would be a perfect day, but you're not going to have every day like that. A goal of ours in the middle overs is to score off as many balls as possible. If we can achieve that, we'll score more runs and be a better one-day side."
Despite 10 series wins in their last 12 bilateral campaigns, England's ODI team is still very much a work in progress. However, Bell is excited about their prospects in the coming months and years, and believes that Jade Dernbach's emergence has added an extra dimension to their bowling.
"We're trying everything we can to improve," he said. "Watching the Twenty20 the other day, it looks like we've got some players who can really bowl well at the back end, and when we go to India, the reverse-swinging ball and slower balls become so important. It looks like we've got an attack which can do that, which is a massive improvement already.
"We're targeting to become one of the better fielding teams in the world," he added. "We're desperate to do it. As with Tests, the group is hungry for improvement and success. If we keep that, I'm hoping it will be exactly the same as in Tests."
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