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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jackie on December 28, 2009, 21:41 GMT

    Your memory is at fault biggsey. That was his Edgbaston 50 when he had an lbw call that wasn't given. But it only happened once, the other appeals were clearly going over the stumps by quite a bit. There were no lbw appeals in his Oval innings of 72. Bell is a class player. If he had half the faith shown in him by his coach that Cook has received, then he would be a more successful and confident player I am sure. And Cook's run of bad form and poor Tests was very similar to Bell's when Bell was dropped for Shah, then Bopara. Bell did have to fight back for a place in the side and has been under continuous pressure from the media and the so-called England fans since then. Despite top scoring in the first innings at the Oval for 72, his failure in his next Test at Centurion has called for him to be dropped again. Extraordinary severe. As someone has commented on another cricket comment board, the fans seem to have the memory span of a gnat. Bell and Cook's experience deserve investment.

  • Ashley on December 23, 2009, 14:28 GMT

    @ olympian...I think Sutekh35 meant to drop both Cook and Bell, and play Morgan in the lower middle order instead of Bell. Of openers to replace Cook in the long term, Carberry has to be your man for Tests. Denly could be an option, but I think he is more of an ODI player than a "Test" player. And then there is also Rob Key, but I agree this would be a backwards step.

    So the batting would be Carberry for Cook, and Morgan for Bell. This will never happen of course, for we all know the class reasons behind Cook's choice. He went to the right school, his head fits the cap of hopeless public school opener who gets picked for all the wrong reasons. Why England persist with Bell is also madness...the guy never scores runs when the game actually means something.

    And if we need reminding of Morgan's talent...just play back some of his recent ODI innings. The guy has bundles of talent!

  • Thomas on December 23, 2009, 14:18 GMT

    Am I the only person to think that Ian Bell is out of his depth in Test cricket? Sure he had some good knocks in the Championship, but did they warrant a recall to the England side? To think that a ball from Paul Harris is gonna turn that much was a bit naive. He couldn't have been watching it very closely. I really don't think there is a place in the batting line up for Bell, certainly not at 6. He is never gonna steady a sinking ship and rescue a situation.

  • bill on December 23, 2009, 11:23 GMT

    The article poses the important question what happens if Strauss gets injured? It has been known for English batsmen to pick up finger injuries and if any batsman was injured there would be a real problem. We seem to have picked a squad with too many bowlers and a lack of cover for the top-order.

  • Victoria on December 23, 2009, 11:00 GMT

    Bell's 72 at the Oval was far from a fine performance, if I remember rightly he should have been given out plumb lbw and had two other reprieves. He got lucky and if you look at the majority of his innings against quality teams, if he doesn't have a bit of luck (umpire decision going for him, dropped catch) then he is out for a very low score.

  • Simon on December 23, 2009, 9:54 GMT

    I like Bell at 6, despite his latest failure. He's a beautiful cricketer to watch and despite what many think, he's pretty tough mentally and will hopefully start to shine again soon. Likewise Cook, while he's having a bit of a lean time at present he's still young and is far and away the best young opener in the country. Carberry has a good season and then a shocking one, Denly hasn't taken his chances and Key is past it.

  • Keith on December 23, 2009, 8:43 GMT

    Rudolf for Cook, Van Jaarsveld for Bell. Problem solved.

  • Barath on December 23, 2009, 6:21 GMT

    Add to it Bell averages only 20 in his last 10 tests and even in the Ashes he averaged only 28. So is one good knock of 72 at Oval good enough for him to stay in the side???

  • Barath on December 23, 2009, 6:15 GMT

    So why is there so much talk about Gooch? do you at least know that Andy Flower averaged over 50 in test cricket? isn't he underrated as he is from Zimb.

    I know that Strauss still thinks it was Andy Flower who helped him to come back to form.

  • Lyle on December 23, 2009, 3:33 GMT

    Cook is a good player but his problem will always be his footwork, as a opener he really needs to move his feet more to the swinging and seaming ball or else he won't improve. If you look at his Wagonwheel it's mostly square on the legside and offside he doesn't play in the "V" due to lack of footwork so will always struggle against quality bowlers as was shown in the 06/07 Ashes: Mcgrath,Clark,Lee figured him out. Unless he sorts his technique out before the next test i can really see him struggling against Steyn and Kallis who get that late swing, he is a good back foot player proberbly englands best so he really shouldn't have as much problems with Nrini and Morkel more back of the length bowlers. Now Goochie's gone maybe Andy Flower can help him he was a top batsmen in his day or ask some of the commentry crew eg.Boycott,Atherton,Lloyd,Vaughan,Gower for assistance.

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