South Africa in England 2012 August 12, 2012

It's been a tough year - Bell

As they did earlier in the year against Sri Lanka, England now face a must-win Test if they want to retain their No. 1 ranking having been outplayed at their own game by South Africa

Just as Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay spent many weeks climbing Mount Everest only to remain at the peak for a few minutes, so England's period on top of the world may be fleeting.

You would not have thought so for all the fuss about Kevin Pietersen, but English cricket reached new heights this week. By rising to the top of the ODI rankings, England are just a point away from becoming the first side to be rated No. 1 in Test, T20 and ODI cricket at the same time, with South Africa the only side that stands between them and the top spot in T20 cricket. Whatever the future, whatever the flaws in the rankings system, that is a fine achievement.

But it may well be a short-lived success. As Ian Bell reflected ahead of the final Test in the Investec series against South Africa, England have become a victim of their own tactics of late. Just as England utilised their ambition to attain the No. 1 status as an incentive on the way to defeating India last summer, so they have been victim of South Africa's hunger this year. As a clichéd movie advert might put it: hunter has become hunted.

"We worked hard to get to No.1 and it all comes down to this match at Lord's," Bell said. "At The Oval, South Africa didn't let us back into the game and they showed what a quality team they were. They were a bit like we were last summer against India. We were so hungry to get to No. 1 and that feeling of chasing a No. 1 is something that drove us really hard.

"It's been a bit different being the team being chased. It's like it was for India last year. It's a change and it's also changed how people see us.

"We all sat down and Andy Flower was keen to remind us that the hard work was only just starting. It's like getting your first Test cap: you may think you've made it, but there is such a huge journey after that.

"Getting to No.1 was just part of it. We wanted as a group to stay there as long as possible. But we haven't performed. Over the last 12 months we haven't really been in the form of the last three years so it's put us under pressure to stay there.

"That's what Andy Flower and all the other people in management having been pushing the whole team to do. It's a great place to be. To stay at No. 1 in all formats is going to be hard work. We're going to need a squad of players who are fully fit and focussed to stay there.

"You aim to be good all the time. But in cricket we know you can't score runs or take wickets all the time. We've set a really high bar in terms of what we want to achieve but also South Africa have come and played really well. They haven't taken us by surprise, but we just didn't get things right at The Oval.

"We have got to learn lessons if we want to stay at No.1. Or if we want to get that title back if we lose it."

Bell's acceptance that England may lose their No. 1 status may be interpreted as weakness by some, but he insists the England team still believe they can level this series. He feels that, after the mauling England took at the Oval, the momentum changed in Leeds and England can take advantage at Lord's.

"They have had the first bit at the Oval and maybe the first bit at Headingley," Bell said. "But things just started to turn at the end of Headingley and we can hopefully take that momentum into Lord's.

I think they fully know and respect the fact that we can beat them. The three series I have played against South Africa have been really tough and really close and I don't expect this Test to be any different

"We have always believed we can beat any team certainly in England. We know we can beat South Africa. Even speaking to a few of the South Africans, I know that they are fully aware that you don't just take the Oval to Headingley. You have to start again.

"I think they fully know and respect the fact that we can beat them. The three series I have played against South Africa have been really tough and really close and I don't expect this Test to be any different.

"Hopefully the momentum began to shift at Headingley with Stuart Broad's spell. They have a few niggles, too."

South Africa have utilised a similar method to England. They have played the same brand of attritional, disciplined cricket that England used against Australia and India. The difference is, though, that for the first time in several years at home, South Africa look better at that form of cricket than England.

"As an eleven, right the way down, they are a real mature team," Bell said. "There are no real youngsters. They are all established Test cricketers like Australia were in 2006 and 2007. They know their games inside out.

"That's why this series has been good. We have been very much like them. In the past few series we have had only one or two changes.

"South Africa have been very organised. What they have done really well is that at the start of every session they have come in hard with the ball for ten overs, with Steyn, Morkel or whoever they have the luxury of four good seamers, and they have managed to get a wicket early in most sessions which has put us on the back foot.

"They grind you down with the bat," Bell added. "They leave well and they try and bat a long, long time. They try to get bowlers into their third or fourth spell. It doesn't matter how good the bowler is. If they are coming back for a fourth spell they are going to be tired and there are going to be more bad balls.

"We have probably been a little bit outdone in that department. But they do play a patience game with the bat and with the ball they come very aggressively

"At Headingley I was guilty of a really bad shot. We know that when the ball swings there it's a hard place to drive and it was the same at the Oval. There were probably some poor shots in there."

While such errors are a disappointment to Bell, he is also disappointed by the abbreviated nature of this Test series. Repeating a theme echoed by many around the world, Bell expressed his dissatisfaction that such a high-quality series should be such a brief affair.

"It's great for Test cricket," he said, "but it's just a shame it is only a three match series. The standard of this cricket means it should be a five match series. It's a shame that the series will have come and gone so quickly. I don't really like three match series. You lose a bit to the weather or have a draw and it's gone. This should have been a five match series."

Investec, the specialist bank and asset manager, is the title sponsor of Test Match cricket in England. Visit the Investec Cricket Zone at for player analysis, stats, test match info and games.'

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Torsha on August 14, 2012, 19:53 GMT

    I can't wait to see SA to be no. 1 team because they are the only team as for now who is winning outside home conditions.

  • John on August 14, 2012, 17:19 GMT

    @VillageBlacksmith on (August 14 2012, 12:14 PM GMT) I still have my reservations re Bell and his SR in certain situation - don't get me wrong - but I just felt the SR should not have been a concern in a game we did not need to win

  • R on August 14, 2012, 12:14 GMT

    @JG2704... You may notice Jelly Belly has the lowest SR of the ODI top bats as well!! A theme is developing!! But let's see how he gets on @ HQ! Bell is now a senior member and needs to show it esp to the 2 new boys, not scoring 1 run off 10 overs with the novices at the other end... I think KP's swashbuckling innings def helped Taylor last time, so let's hope Bell can do something similar for Bairstow... Bell needs a score imo, he has done little to live up to his billing apart from wave a straight ball thru to his off stump in that confused timid way of his... without KP he might come out of his shell, let's hope so.. but i will not be buying his runs.

  • John on August 14, 2012, 8:42 GMT

    @VillageBlacksmith on (August 13 2012, 23:45 PM GMT) Got to be honest , I think you're being a bit harsh on Bell here re the SR in the 1st test. Eng lost momentum and that also had something to do with Bell playing when batting conditions worsened and also I don't see how the SR would put pressure on the other Eng batsmen in a test they did not need to win. In the 2nd inns I was very disappointed with the shot he got out with but not bothered about the SR at all in the 1st match. In the 2nd test I think Bresnan should rec more criticism for his 1st inns SR as we now needed to level the series and push the game forward (even if we conceeded a 1st inns deficit) and TB wasted valuable time. In the 1st test this was the right aproach but not in this one

  • R on August 13, 2012, 23:45 GMT

    @clarke501.. I agree that in some circs strike rate may be irrelevant, but bells' strike rate of 24% on the 2nd day of the 1st test is where momentum was lost and passed to RSA, as well as putting extra pressure on the other batsmen... (and then he gets out to a bad shot!) Amla scored 311 at 64%... 90% of the time, esp in the modern game, Strike Rate is not irrelevant, and esp when you have to give your bowlers time to get the opposition out.... but more than that, it shows bell's insecurity & inadequacy vs good bowling (he ave 158 v b'desh) that for over after over he cannot hit it off the square (and then gets out to a bad shot again!).. Its just the way bell is, esp this year.

  • Partish on August 13, 2012, 19:47 GMT

    >>>""England are just a point away from becoming the first side to be rated No. 1 in Test, T20 and ODI cricket at the same time, with South Africa the only side that stands between them and the top spot in T20 cricket. Whatever the future, whatever the flaws in the rankings system, that is a fine achievement.""<<< While this statement is true, I find double standards here. When India was leading the test rankings and won the world cup in April 2011 (they were no 2 in ODI behind Aus) It was indeed a very very fine achievement, but rather than acknowledging the feats, all what was being said (especially by Ian Botham and Nasser Hussein) is how flattering and faulty the ranking systems were and how undeserving India was of everything. Now we see how difficult Eng is finding to stay on top - being thrashed by Pak in UAE, barely able to draw the series in SL (am sure if Malinga & Murali wud have been there they wud have been thrashed there as well) an now this SA series...

  • Cricinfouser on August 13, 2012, 13:49 GMT

    @VillageBlacksmith - Bell's strike rate is irrelevant. He was the only top order batsman to bat time in the 2nd innings at the Oval. If more had followed his lead, England might have drawn the match. Similarly at Headingley his job in the final innings was to bat out the final overs once the chance of a win had gone, a task which he accomplished successfully.

  • R on August 13, 2012, 12:10 GMT

    bells own paltry contributions, weak presence and plummeting strike rate (8% SR in his last innings, 23% ave SR at the oval) also leave a lot to be desired... he is as much to blame as anyone for the current malaise and looks clueless as to how to respond... i hope taylor and jb can score bells runs as well

  • Sai on August 13, 2012, 11:48 GMT

    Disappointed at the abbreviated Test Series? :O Will someone remind Bell that they were actually thrashed in their first outing and managed a draw due to the single handed effort of a guy who's now ousted from the team. Better lose briefly than suffering by an embarassing margin. KP is criticised for his egoism and what's this "we are No.1" stress in every comment by all Englishmen ? Ever saw a ship getting wrecked? Follow England Cricket team for the next couple of months - Test status next week, ODI status two weeks later n T20 status next month.

  • Dummy4 on August 13, 2012, 11:44 GMT

    Absolutely agreed with the part about England being beaten with their own tactics, but it had nothing to do with 'hunger.' I've been really impressed with South Africa in this series. They've played proper test cricket, building slowly, then attacking. England's success comes partly because teams like India and Australia have basically forgotten how to play tests. England this series haven't look bad, but they just haven't played the 'long game' anywhere near as well as South Africa.

    That said - a lot can change in 1 test. The contest was much more even in the second test. Perhaps England will thrash South Africa by an innings in this final test. Who knows? Cricket has a lot to do with luck and form. Doesn't instantly make a player or a team bad.

    You don't get to nearly number 1 in all formats by being a bad team. The people claiming this are either delusional fools or, quite frankly, jealous of England's success. I'm tempted to say it's a little of both.

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