The aftermath of the Jamaica Test February 9, 2009

Bell tolls as batting worries stack up


Ian Bell is due a break from the Test side - and it might actually do him good © Getty Images
 
What was meant to be the final day of the first Test at Sabina Park marked five months until the start of the Ashes on July 8. Hardly the best time to collapse for 51 all out - not that there's ever a good time. In the history of Test cricket only two other England batting orders have been humiliated for less. The first was in 1887 and the second in 1994. Using that maths, the next wasn't due until 2101 so the Kingston collapse has come 92 years early.

It may seem harsh to single out individuals when the entire team were back in the pavilion before the tea-time roti and jerk chicken was ready, but a position in England's line-up has started to resemble the ultimate in job security. Once you get in, there's no getting out. Some will argue that the same team that messed up so badly should put it right (as Mike Atherton's team did in Barbados in 1994 having been skittled for 46 in Trinidad) but there has been so little change in this team that something must be done now.

When England were humbled for 110 by New Zealand in Hamilton last year, the selectors responded by dropping two bowlers in Steve Harmison and Matthew Hoggard. Although that perverse logic paid off with back-to-back wins to take the series, the time has come to pop the batting bubble. This is the same top six that suffocated against Shane Warne in Adelaide in 2006-07 and has only one change - Andrew Flintoff for Michael Vaughan - from the side shot out for 81 in Galle in 2007-08. They have been underperforming for too long.

Ian Bell has been given the most generous lease on his berth, having moved up the order from No.6 to No. 3 when Vaughan resigned as captain last August. It has never been a position that suits Bell and his recent returns in one of the defining batting positions have been 109 runs in eight innings, and in his total of 16 matches at No. 3 he averages 31.

But if four matches seems a harsh sample to judge on, an extended analysis doesn't do him many favours either. Bell is one of those players where it is even possible to make cases against his more substantial innings. He made 199 against South Africa at Lord's last year; a calm, measured, controlled innings until he was one away from a landmark and thumped a drive back to Paul Harris. Why not tickle it around the corner? It smacked of someone trying to make a big statement when it isn't his style.

Also, during a large part of that innings, he had Kevin Pietersen as his wingman, helping to guide him through the turbulence England were feeling after losing 3 for 3. It is a well-known statistic that Bell has never been the lone century-maker in an innings. His success has been built on the back of others, rather than him setting the path to be followed.

In Napier last winter, the knives were being sharpened when he began his second innings. A few hours later he had a delightful hundred, full of sweetly timed boundaries, and was pumping the air in satisfaction. However, at the other end was Andrew Strauss, arguably with even more pressure on him, saving his career with 177. Again, Bell was able to hide away.

When Bell fell in the final over before lunch on the fourth day at Sabina Park he trudged off the ground with his head bowed. Strauss, the not-out batsman and his captain, gave him a wide berth and followed slowly up the pavilion steps a fair distance behind. Strauss perhaps knew that he will soon be delivering the bad news to Bell. Time to move aside.

Bell doesn't need to be ashamed of being dropped, it has happened to many better players and many have come back with greater success. What would be shameful would be if Bell, and the team, continued to pretend that there wasn't a problem. Supporting your team-mates is one thing, but it can soon turn into a lie. Bell has not had any confidence at the crease at any stage of England's tours this winter, from Stanford through the one-dayers and Tests in India, to the opening contest in the West Indies.

And there is evidence, right here in this team, that a break can revive a career. Bell need only look at Strauss for evidence of what a refreshed mind can achieve. He was left out of the Sri Lanka tour in late 2007 before returning to the side in New Zealand and securing his future with that previously mentioned 177. Questions were again asked of Strauss at the end of the South Africa series, but he still had enough energy in the bank from his international break that he struck twin centuries in Chennai.

Time away from the intensity of Test cricket could be the cure for Bell. He has been dropped before, albeit briefly, following a mediocre tour of India in 2005-06, and he missed the home series against Sri Lanka. When he came back against Pakistan he went on a run of three consecutive centuries, although they again came lower down the order at No. 6.

The pressure to replace Bell is so strong because Owais Shah has been waiting in the wings and doing everything asked of him. Shortly after Bell fell to Sulieman Benn there were shots of Shah in the Sabina Park nets working against a bowling machine. He has had a lot of opportunity to practice, now is the time to let him put it into action. The expectation on Shah to make a difference will be substantial - his is a perfect case of a player gaining extra worth by not being in the middle of a debacle such as 51 all out - but he must be given a run to show his worth.

It is the good fortune of the other batsmen that Shah is the only batting reserve on the trip, because a few others should be feeling twitchy. Alastair Cook, despite his vice-captaincy tag, was twice the victim of dreadful shots for an opener while Paul Collingwood's problems with his scoring rate is causing a jam in the middle. Collingwood has credit in the bank with the selectors, but where has that clumping slog-sweep and punchy, lofted drive disappeared to? He has played them against Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan, so why not Benn?

But while there is no one else on tour to pressurise the current incumbents (unless they bring in Tim Ambrose as a batsman, and that's a touch drastic even for this situation) there is one figure who looms back in the depths of the English winter. Vaughan admitted it was right he was left out of the original touring squad, but he would have been a calming figure for Strauss to have at hand in his moment of need. After the shock of such a collapse, and with that date with the Australians in Cardiff fast approaching, suddenly the prospect of Vaughan walking out to bat seems quite appealing.

Andrew McGlashan is a staff writer at Cricinfo

Comments