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Ian Bell may lack the grandiosity of Kevin Pietersen, the man he has replaced as England opener, but his hundred against West Indies at West End underlined that his skills are valuable in the era of dual new balls
June 16, 2012
News : Arthur tempted by England traditions
Report : Bell's comeback hundred sets up comfortable victory
Features : Smith the only sparkle for West Indies
Matches: England v West Indies at Southampton
Series/Tournaments: West Indies tour of England
England sense that 50-over cricket has shifted their way again. Ian Bell will certainly be of that mind. The rule change that dictates two new balls must be used in an innings from the outset was on show in an ODI in England for the first time and it has encouraged the belief that traditional virtues are back in fashion.
In India, two new balls might prevent the stifling of strokeplay by a single ball that has long gone soft. In England, especially a summer as bedraggled as this when the prospect of swing and seam abounds, the regulation provides evidence for the value of conventional batting up the order and a strong seam attack. That is what England do best.
Bell not only made 126 the day after receiving 10 stitches in a chin wound and having an X-ray on a suspected fractured jaw, he did so against two balls rather than one. But the West Indies could have been armed with half-a-dozen new balls for all the difference it would have made. They propelled it wide of Bell's off stump, without much venom, and he combined sumptuous timing and technical excellence from the outset. The scar even nearly made him look battle hardened. It is a look that has never come easily to him.
There is little point England regarding the latest batch of rule changes as a route to winning the 2015 World Cup in Australia. The ICC tinkers with ODIs so often that by the time they reach Australia, the regulations will have it that they must open the bowling with an orange and bat blindfolded in bowling Powerplays. And if you think batting blindfolded might be injurious to health, well, the ICC have banned runners - Darren Bravo could not have one for a groin injury suffered in the field - and it would be no surprise if one day there was a legal challenge about that.
Imagine the fuss if it had been Kevin Pietersen, the man whose one-day retirement has now given Bell a fresh opportunity, who had made a hundred the day after what he would presumably have conveyed (even though not able to speak) as a near-death experience. His innings would have developed into wondrous theatre as the runs mounted with his hand held gingerly to his face, pills and potions consumed, and medical staff and physios summoned at regular intervals for consultations.
It is not to deride Pietersen to observe that his star quality can often be wrapped in the excesses of his age whereas Bell, however much he seeks a sense of presence, remains essentially understated. Pietersen scores runs and fills grounds; no matter how sublimely Bell may play he must settle for filling runs columns. They are two opposites yet relish batting together. It is regrettable for England that in one-day cricket they will not do so again.
Not once did Bell flinch in discomfort from his injury, perhaps wisely considering that as he had suffered it receiving throwdowns in the nets from the England fielding coach, Richard Halsall, it was best not to draw attention to it. When debates rage about the most terrifying fast bowling the game has known, Halsall's throwdowns have never previously merited a mention.
His first shot of authority was a big straight six against Andre Russell, who found little joy running into a buffeting southerly breeze. In Pietersen's hands, it would have had a grandiose touch, but Bell virtually tip-toed down the pitch, stroked the ball skywards with grace and timing, and then returned to his crease with minimal fuss.
|"Bell's six saw him tip-toe down the pitch, stroke the ball skywards with grace and timing, and then return to his crease with minimal fuss"|
That over, Russell's third, went for 18 runs, including a controlled pull during which the ghost of Halsall did not materialise. There was much in his favour. It was a pristine batting pitch and West Indies' one-day threat is based around a succession of bowlers largely seeking containment in the belief that their batting line-up packs a greater punch.
Conceivably, he might also have been caught at the wicket off Ravi Rampaul on 23; Hot Spot showed nothing, although Snicko had a minor tremor. He played with a uniform tread, his fifty gained the over after drinks; his hundred the over after more drinks, a quicker ball from Marlon Samuels that he punched sweetly through extra cover.
When Pietersen moved up the order to open the batting it was interpreted as solving the problem of England's top order. When Bell took over the opener's spot upon Pietersen's retirement, discussion centred around the problem of Bell, a batsman who had made only one hundred in 108 ODIs - against India on the same ground in 2007 - and who had been shunted around the order, filling gaps where asked, beginning last summer at six against Sri Lanka, up to No.4 against India, not even in the squad in the UAE last winter, psyched out by Pakistan spinners.
His inability to impose himself has made him the itinerant of the batting order, but a kinder interpretation is that it has also owed something to his adaptability and his willingness to serve England where he can.
England's one-day side will be worse for the absence of Pietersen's preening, but on this evidence Bell's well-groomed strokeplay could provide a more than capable substitute. It might have been that the smack on the jaw somehow simplified matters for him and stopped him dwelling unduly on his new opening role.
As for Pietersen, he was on a flying trip to Johannesburg, there and back in little more than a day to watch South Africa's rugby union international against England at Ellis Park. Even with time so short, he remained an inveterate tweeter and when news of the cricket came through found time to message "BELLY YOU BEAUTY!!!!! Please pick up the MOM award." He duly did.
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