August 19, 2009

The Bell question

In not just retaining faith in him but promoting him to first-drop, England's selectors have been brave way beyond the call of duty

Isn't this exactly how it should finish? Isn't this precisely what we longed for in the giddy aftermath of 2005? And talk about timing. Aren't the next five days potentially the best antidote one could possibly wish for, however temporary it may prove, as match-fixing and drugs rear their ugly heads again?

One match to go, Ashes at stake, heroes and villains lurking in the wings ready to deliver or fluff their lines, anything and all things possible - and not a single moment stage-managed bar the speed-gun readings. It's a wonder Sly Stallone has yet to start shooting a cricket movie franchise. All he'd have to do to his boxing one is replace an "o" with an "i" and start adding numbers - Ricky 1, Ricky 2 and so on. Blood, guts, perseverance, pain, redemption, revenge and ungracious boos: what more could the Italian Stallion possibly wish for?

Provided you are not averse to unpredictable plot twists and indelible scenes - the Collingwood-Anderson-Panesar tightrope ride in Cardiff; Andrew Flintoff on the final morning at Lord's; James Anderson's mesmeric swing and Graeme Swann's dismissal of Ricky Ponting at Edgbaston; Michael Clarke at Lord's, Edgbaston and Headingley; Ben Hilfenhaus impersonating Terry Alderman right down to the deceptive pace and stoical demeanour - it is hard to dispute, surely, that the most fluctuating Ashes series since 1972 deserves nothing less than a winner-takes-all climax. The only pity is that, for one team, a draw will suffice. Fortunately, notwithstanding the docility of the average Test pitch, playing with that goal in mind, given contemporary concentration spans, is about as straightforward and tempting as trying to spend a day in front of the telly without channel-hopping.

Distant second favourites as they are, if England want to see this match through the prism of a half-full glass, they have only to retrace the pattern of the series. In two of the first three Tests, the inferior team established a momentum-shifting impetus as the game wound down. Australia held a distinct upper hand in Cardiff but England finished on top and carried that momentum through to Lord's. England then had much the better of things at Edgbaston but Australia thwarted them with a flourish and converted that positive mindset into a walkover at Headingley. All the same, the bold strokes of Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann, despairing and fruitless as they were, ensured England finished that game on the front foot. The question is whether Andrew Strauss - with more than a little help from the farewelling Flintoff - can convince his team-mates that those scraps are worth seizing, that the enemy is still slayable.

Home supporters could also do worse than scour the Wisdens in the Oval library. Only three times in Test annals has a team ever trailed in a five-match series going into the final two Tests and won them both - Australia v England in 1936-37, West Indies in Australia in 1992-93, and England v South Africa in 1998 (in theory, the 1989-90 Wisden Trophy rubber, which West Indies won after lagging 0-1 going into the fourth chapter, also fits the bill, but the second was abandoned in the first hour).

Trouble is, for all Ponting's determination not to become the first Australian since Billy Murdoch to lead two tours of England without taking home a series victory, Australia don't actually need to win - unless they take the ICC Test table more seriously than the public do. It is England who must force the pace, which means shedding fear and inhibition while being careful not to over-reach, embracing risk while eliminating impatience and minimising mental error. A fine line to tread. A combination all teams seek but only the very best achieve.

All of which left Geoff Miller, James Whitaker and Ashley Giles in something of a pickle. Post-Headingley, wholesale changes were never an option, and rightly so. England had controlled the previous Test and won the one before that. In Leeds the bowlers dropped the ball as readily as the batsmen, but the latter had sinned more grievously over the series. De-selecting Ravi Bopara, while entirely justified on form, would send out signs of panic, however controlled, as would relegating him in the order. Recalling Mark Ramprakash, while entirely justified on form, would have been an admission of short-termism, not in itself a terrible thing but another indication of panic. In sticking with Jonathan Trott after excluding him from the Leeds XI, the selectors were at least being consistent in backing their judgment, but throwing a new man into these rapids, whatever his current first-class average, still looks like folly. Maybe Miller checked Bopara's average for the rubber and reasoned Trott couldn't do any worse? "Another mouthy Yarpie!" sniffed a long-time press colleague. But that's another kettle of cod altogether.

Yet Trott's inclusion was not the only one to pose questions about the selectors' fitness for purpose. In not only retaining faith in Ian Bell but promoting him to first-drop, they have been brave way beyond the call of duty, calling that judgment into question. An admirable punt in a way, yes, but more, one suspects, than a little touched, even vainglorious. "We know you'll think we're mad," was the unconvincing gist of it, "but we know something you don't."

Having been wrong about Bopara's temperament and technique, to take such a punt on his replacement at No. 3 suggests that coach and selectors are confident they know the mettle of their man, which one suspects puts them in an exceedingly elite and privileged group

Of all the mindgames played these past 10 days, The Bell Question may resound longest and loudest. There is a good reason why, traditionally, the best batsman has always deemed himself the rightful No. 3 (only recently, with the likes of Jacques Kallis, Brian Lara, Kevin Pietersen, Sachin Tendulkar and Graham Thorpe, has the slot become less coveted). It was the position that demanded the occupant serve as both surrogate opener and dictator of mood and tempo. Those who believe Bell is capable of fulfilling either function adequately are not multitudinous. Requesting him to be both is quite an ask. Lovely to watch in full flow, clearly an all-round sweetie, he has never suggested he has the inner steel to impose himself on those who believe they have his measure, to bend an opponent's will to his desire.

Picking Ramprakash, conversely, was a shot in the near-dark worth taking, even more so than recalling Rob Key. Since his backbone was found wanting at Test level in 2002, Ramprakash has been under a rather different sort of pressure: his became the most prized wicket in the shires. Sure, he's a top-notch technician, especially since Mark O'Neill helped him adjust that initial trigger movement, but that's only part of it. Imposing his will is what he does best. Some might say he has found his level as a domestic god; others would cite those dizzy county averages as proof that nobody on the circuit surrenders his wicket with greater reluctance. In a match of this importance, what virtue could possibly come in handier?

Granted, there was always the chance that he would have frozen, not so much because of external expectations but those of internal origin, which have always been his tormentor. That still makes choosing him at three less risky than promoting Bell. Ramprakash would have had nothing to lose and an even bigger millstone to destroy, both more promising ingredients for success.

PITY THE POOR SELECTORS? They certainly warrant a soupçon of sympathy. Choosing the right team is one of the least exact sciences known to man, perpetually susceptible as practitioners are to that unholy trinity of mood, opposition and hindsight. Having been wrong (thus far) about Bopara's temperament and technique, to take such a punt on his replacement at No. 3 suggests that coach and selectors are confident they know the mettle of their man, which one suspects puts them in an exceedingly elite and privileged group.

"You might as well try a mayfly for its record as a newt." Thus quipped Allen Synge in his history of the England selectors, Sins of Omission, a revealing and stimulating 1990 tome to which Gubby Allen, Alec Bedser, Ted Dexter and Doug Insole, panel chairmen all, lent their voices without the author being noticeably compromised. Synge was referring to the fact that selectors, thankfully, are an ever-changing body. At the dawn of the 1990s, nevertheless, he was justified in listing the crimes most readily and consistently associated with them for the best part of a century:

a) an untoward affection for 'chop and change'
b) pronounced bias in favour of Southern as opposed to Northern players
c) an inexplicable suspicion of fast bowling and, indeed, of authentic spin
d) a mistrust of youth and potential promise
e) a confused perception of what is required of an England captain

Two decades later, 10 years into the Central Contracts Era, such characteristic sins are almost wholly unheard-of. Another list of offences, though, has slipped smoothly into the breach:

a) an untoward affection for Southern batsmen
b) a pronounced bias in favour of Northern fast bowlers
c) an inexplicable suspicion of county cricketers
d) a mistrust of thirtysomethings
e) a confused perception of what is required to turn a middling side into a contender

Examined from the extremes, the alternative endgames are clear. If their gambit succeeds - Bell makes a significant contribution to an England victory - Miller, Whitaker and Giles will be hailed as geniuses and probably knighted. If it fails - Bell succumbs twice for under 40 and England lose or draw - nobody will be able to accuse press or pundits of being wise after the event and the trio should dutifully de-select themselves without further ado.

Can Bell defy the sceptics and confound that fragile reputation? I sincerely hope that last week's hundred for Warwickshire, following a cheap first-innings dismissal, is an indication that he can. Stranger things have happened on Planet Sport over the past month. Who'd have thought Tiger Woods would miss the cut at the British Open then lose the US PGA title to a Korean? Who'd have imagined a leading rugby union team could face disqualification and possibly bankruptcy for orchestrating a feigned injury, while an international player who deliberately gouges an opponent's eye escapes with a relatively brief suspension? A match-winning innings from Bell would still rank among the more unexpected reversals of nature and fortune in recent memory. Which makes his selection at No. 3, given the options, all the more irresponsible.

It isn't as simple as that, of course. It never is. Bell could score a hundred and England could still fall short. He could make a king pair then puncture the ozone layer soaring for a one-handed Ashes-wresting catch, a lifelong legend forged but case unproven. These, though, are the grey areas, and the ECB, keen to re-establish some shreds of dignity after the fiascos of the past year, are unlikely to give even half a fig about those.

Captains are usually the first casualties of Ashes defeat but not this year, or at least not in England's case. Strauss would have a better chance of surviving than Ponting, if only because, unlike his counterpart, there is no compelling alternative. If Bell fails it would imply that those who chose him for this role are ill-equipped to ascertain what it takes to pass the game's most searching examinations and assess which players possess those qualities. Time, gentlemen, to start crossing those fingers.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton