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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Amahl on August 21, 2009, 6:00 GMT

    It's easy for us as onlookers to just say that Bell isn't good enough. As a selection team, I pity the England selectors because had they dropped him after one poor game, they would have copped a lot of flak. Not that I'm supporting either Ian Bell or the English selectors but you have to feel some sympathy there. I reckon Ramps was the best option in this case, desperate or not, he's more reliable than Ian Bell and may not have played on the international circuit for a long time but even now, there's no doubt hes capable of performing, moreso than Bell. Pressure beginning for Trott and although I dont like his style, he reminds me a lot of Collingwood when considering his mental toughness. I feel they still have a further weak link in the batting (forgive me England supporters but i speak the truth) in the overhyped 'all rounder' Andrew Flintoff. Relying on the likes of Broad and Swann in pressure situations in a highly important game such as this is improbable to get results.

  • Jay on August 20, 2009, 10:31 GMT

    Well, considering that England's short term and long term plans revolve solely around the Ashes, it doesn't make sense not to pick Ramprakash citing short-termism and panic. They should have played him. And Key.

  • Sarmad on August 20, 2009, 2:56 GMT

    Good article but I think where the selectors went wrong was when they did not give enough time and importance chosing the squad when KP got injured. Either they underestimated the Australian side or were over confident after a victory and the next test when the English put them under some pressure. What they should have done after KP was injured and Flintoff under doubt, called up Ramps and Trott both and keep Bell also. It was an extra batsman but considering Flintoff an allrounder, they could call up two players for him and then decide later if they want to replace him with a bowler or a batsman. And then they would have choices and could have easily played Ramps at 3 in the final test. I doubt Bell and Trott can do the job...Bell is just not a natural number 3 batsman and I feel for Trott, playing an Ashes decider after a media discussion of whether he is the right man for 10 days. In any case, I would love this game to go to the last ball but it's a bit too much for England to win.

  • michael on August 20, 2009, 2:35 GMT

    I'm hoping that the England selectors and Bell will again prove the Peter Principle. Also hoping that Mitchell Johnson is on song - the key to that seems to be picking Stuart Clark to play. The Aussies seem to have enough part-time spinners to leave Hauritz out. We'll all see how it unfolds in a short while.

  • Asad on August 19, 2009, 21:52 GMT

    I think in about 5yrs time we are going 2 have two South African teams.The original team from South Africa and then the England/South African team.what you guys think its only a matter of time.But you cant really blame them(England) Or Can You.

  • Peter on August 19, 2009, 17:55 GMT

    Nothing wrong with Trott. Something wrong with Bell (I speak as a Warwickshire supporter).

    The elephant in the room here is Alastair Cook, who desperately needs the Strauss treatment -- ie being dropped for six months or so, because he really needs to recover his footwork and think about how to open an innings.

    Anything other than Bopara (for this one game) is a positive move. Much as I loathe the MCC tendency to pick useless Home Counties batsmen (Luckhurst, anybody?), I can't help feeling that Carberry would have been a better bet to open. The trouble is, they're all left-handers. Nevertheless, I'd have picked Carberry and Key (RH) to open, and Strauss as number 3. At least that way you confuse the Aussie opening bowlers, and pit an aging Ponting directly against his opposite number.

    Oh, and drop Bell. Now. Central contracts are all very well for genuine world-class talent, but they seem to be a drag on the current English team.

  • Adam on August 19, 2009, 15:46 GMT

    England teams certainly do uniquely have a gift for introducing new players at the most demanding of times - even the great KP might have struggled if he'd been blooded at the Oval in 2005. It is an enormous ask of Trott, and a very foolish selection - I hope he goes on to do great things, but it must be immensely unlikely that he get a decent score in this game. As to short-terminism, in my opinion it is flawed reasoning to pick players less likely to do a job now, on the basis that they may perform in the long term. They rarely do; and in any event why favour potential future success over success now? Australia never does. Bell has looked terrified all series, and it has been blindingly obvious for years that, sadly, he does not have the intellect or spirit to succeed against the best teams, whatever the merits of his technique. He never dominates, whatever the situation - a more unlike for like replacemnent for KP was hard to imagine. If only Samit Patel had been handled better

  • James on August 19, 2009, 15:31 GMT

    As Sir Humphgrey would say "..a brave decision, minister..". Bell has only ever got runs at 5 or 6 but he has been proven to be lackling in mental toughness/fortitude at 3 and 4. He was rightly dropped after Jamaica and should never be seen in an England shirt ever again! He is a good county player but he can't make the step up and has been tried dozens of times! I agree Ravi has been found wanting but again he is a number 5 or 6...he was nevewr going to do it at 3...where you need your best batsmen and an opener at that.

    Cook has more centuries at 3 than as an opener, Key should have been opener with Strauss and put Coiokie at 3, Trott at 4 no issues. Bloody Giles just picks Warks. players!!I would ahve had Ramps ina s well but they are idiots!

  • Mihir on August 19, 2009, 13:50 GMT

    Jonathan Trott! ARE YOU KIDDING ME? GIVE ME A BREAK! The ECB have once again proven their absolute imcompetance in all matters cricket. It started with Stanford fiasco, sacking Pietersen as skipper and now the selection of Jonathan Trott ( Who is this guy). He averages less than 44 in all formats. Ridiculous. Can anyone remember Darren Pattinson? A Stupid mindless selection then, another absolute incompetant stupid worthless selection now. The logic in passing over Ramps, who is in Bradmanesque touch, has played plenty of Test cricket before, in favor of this average at best batsmen for a huge Ashes decider is dumbfounded and mindboggling. And to add to stupidity of the selectors, the retainment of Ian Bell? Really? Seriously? No, they couldn't be serious? Yes, in fact, they are. Just when you think the ECB may have their act together, they come back one more thoughtless and utterly stupid decision.

  • Gareth on August 19, 2009, 13:14 GMT

    Rightly or wrongly, choosing Ramps would have made more sense than those people bemoaning such short-termism would have us believe. After all, his wouldn't necessarily be a one-off cameo as he could tour South Africa in the winter. Flintoff, on the other hand, has made it clear that this is it. So his is, as of the eve of the Test, very short-term. I just hope Bell and Trott link up in the batting and do each other some good.

  • No featured comments at the moment.