England v Sri Lanka, 1st Investec Test, Lord's June 11, 2014

Cook confirms Bell, Ballance roles

The eve of England's first Test in six months did not see Alastair Cook entirely rip up his usual script and name his XI early - although it will be a big surprise if Liam Plunkett is not preferred ahead of Chris Woakes - but he did reveal two noteworthy pieces of information.

Gary Ballance will fill the No. 3 spot - the void created by Jonathan Trott's withdrawal from international cricket - as he did in the one-day series, and while there is no official vice-captain, Ian Bell will assume the responsibility of captaincy should Cook have to leave the field. Bell, recently named England's Player of the Year, has also got what he wanted with a chance to bat at No. 4 in place of Kevin Pietersen.

There are strong arguments to say that it should have been Bell filling the No. 3 role given his senior position in the team, but there could have been a desire to split up some of the inexperience in the order rather than having Ballance, Joe Root (an option for No. 3) and Moeen Ali following each other. And, of course, some of the most prolific Test careers have also been forged at No. 4.

When Trott left the Ashes last November, Root was initially promoted to No. 3 before Bell filled in for the final Test in Sydney. The fact England will have had three batsmen in that position in five matches just goes to emphasise the stability that Trott brought to the team. Neither is it Ballance's role for Yorkshire in the County Championship, where he normally finds himself at No. 5. There is a sense of a square peg for a round hole.

Bell's unofficial position as Cook's lieutenant also means Matt Prior's recall has not come with the role that was his when he was dropped in Australia. He has previously admitted that he struggled to combine the multiple tasks of vice-captaincy, batting and keeping, and there must remain a degree of uncertainty about how long-term his comeback can be with a troublesome Achilles.

But Cook left no one in any doubt about the high esteem Prior is still held under. "We've got a guy in Matt Prior who averages over 40 in his Test career, he's an outstanding batsman who had a tough six months. I'm backing his ability at the moment and the quality we know he's got.

"He's played almost 80 games, that's a wealth of experience in a side which is changing. Matt is a senior guy who knows his game. Of course we've been in constant communication with his fitness to make sure he's 100% right and he is. He should be very proud of his record, it's outstanding, and he has a lot more to offer and we should support that."

Although the words "new" and "fresh" have been thrown around like confetti in the build-up to this series, Cook sees a bigger role than ever for the senior players who remain in the team.

"I was talking to Ian Bell about it the other day and he said he didn't really feel comfortable until he'd played 40 games," Cook said. "I think that can lead to a bit of inconsistency at the start and a lot of the senior guys have had their ups and downs until they've got to where they are now."

There has been almost as much reaction to those players not in the squad than those who have made it. Jos Buttler would have probably won the popular vote and the explanation that Ben Stokes is just a bit short on bowling has not been universally accepted.

"He's gone for four-and-a-half, almost five runs an over so when you're playing an all-seam attack you've got to be very confident about all the bowlers," Cook said of Stokes. "We've got no doubt how good he will be for England but unfortunately with that injury he received he hasn't played much cricket and it's a big ask to come back quickly from something like that at this stage of his development as a player."

Punching a locker has delayed Stokes a first home Test appearance, but for three others - Sam Robson, Moeen and Chris Jordan - their careers will begin at Lord's on Thursday. Cook also made his debut in a match of three new caps, alongside Monty Panesar and Ian Blackwell in Nagpur, and has been energised by the influx of new faces.

"It feels like a fresh start, it feels good," he said. "It's a really exciting time for the players. When you look around the changing room and see guys who are about to make their debut at Lord's - you don't get that opportunity too often."

And, although there is precious little teams do not know about each other these days, he hopes to catch Sri Lanka unawares. "Sometimes when you go into the unknown the opposition don't know anything about you."

Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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