South Africa v England, 2nd Test, Durban December 22, 2009

Bell takes the heat, but Cook deserves the scrutiny

In the past, Bell has appeared untouchable in the middle order, but at least he has faced a challenge for his place this year

Poor Ian Bell, it didn't look very good, did it? First, he left a straight delivery from Paul Harris and lost his middle stump. Then, he arrived at the crease during a second-innings collapse, and was powerless to pull England out of their slump as he edged a sharp away-swinger from Friedel de Wet to be caught behind for 2. Now, after a match tally of seven runs in two innings, he is back under the spotlight with questions being asked about his future.

But wait a minute. In Bell's previous Test he made a vital contribution to England's Ashes-sealing victory at The Oval. His first-innings 72 must go down as one of most quickly forgotten performances in recent times. At the time, nobody believed that England's first-innings 332 would be sufficient in the conditions, but then suddenly Australia were skittled for 160 by Stuart Broad, and the determination that Bell had put into the innings top-score was worthy of extra praise - although none was particularly forthcoming.

Clearly his returns at Centurion Park were bleak, but hold your scorn for a moment. This time he should not be singled out. In the past, Bell has appeared untouchable in the middle order, but at least he has faced a challenge for his place this year. He was dropped in West Indies and didn't return until Edgbaston against Australia when Kevin Pietersen was ruled out after surgery. But it wasn't purely a recall by default. He had made runs in county cricket, and returned to the squad on merit.

Meanwhile, it is Alastair Cook at the top of the order who is now looking untouchable. He has scored just two Test hundreds in the past two years, both against West Indies - one on a featherbed at Barbados and another at Chester-le-Street when West Indies didn't want to be there - while six of his nine tons came in his first 17 matches. In 15 Tests against Australia and South Africa, countries with the bowlers to exploit his weakness outside off stump, his average plummets to 30.50 from a career level of 42.09. It's time he was put under some real pressure.

But where is that pressure going to come from? There are no obvious candidates to open in the current squad, unless Trott is pushed up to order to match his promotion in ODI cricket. England named six specialist batsmen for this trip and all are now in the starting line-up. That could very easily remain the case for the Boxing Day Test, too, with a five-man bowling attack nowhere near a certain course of action for the visitors, despite the heavy workload for the three quicks in the opening game.

Outside of the men on this tour, the most likely candidate to challenge Cook is Joe Denly. But he hasn't taken his one-day opportunities with both hands and was dropped for the recent series against South Africa. A double-hundred for the Performance Squad was a timely reminder of his potential, but Cook certainly isn't sweating yet.

Cook's hold on his position is made to look even more secure when he is talked about as England's captain-in-waiting. "A leader in his own right," Andy Flower said when answering a question about Cook's struggles. If Andrew Strauss is rested for the Bangladesh tour the captaincy appears to be Cook's. That, however, would become an untenable position if he endures a poor series in South Africa. And that would leave the selectors with a headache.

That isn't to say Cook won't turn his form around. He spent the end of last season working on his technique with his mentor, Graham Gooch, who was also involved with his preparations for the first Test. Sadly for Cook, Gooch has now returned home so it's down to the man himself. There have been positive comments about Cook's footwork from people who know a thing a two about these things (not least Michael Vaughan) but his caught-behind in the first innings at Centurion, pushing at a delivery outside off, was worryingly familiar.

Opening the batting is one of the toughest jobs in Test cricket. Bowlers are fresh, the ball is new and the pitch is often lively. At Centurion, taking on the new ball was the hardest time to bat, as England's late collapse showed so clearly. Failures are part and parcel of an openers' life, but the problem for Cook is that his opponents have worked him out.

It happened to his current partner and captain, Andrew Strauss, after he had also enjoyed a prolific start to his Test career. The rot set in against Australia in 2006-07 and by the end of the following home season he was shot to pieces. Strauss was dropped for the tour of Sri Lanka but used the time to go away and work on his technique. The rest of the Strauss story is well documented (from the career-saving 177 against New Zealand through to his prolific 2009) and Cook now needs a similar transformation.

Maybe we were all lulled into expecting so much from Cook after he burst onto the scene with a remarkable century on debut in Nagpur. But international players are meant to set high benchmarks and keep them there. Christmas Day is his birthday and Durban will be his 50th Test match at the age of just 25. No better time, then, to silence the doubters with his tenth Test century.

Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo

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