A new Ashes series begins on Wednesday with much anticipation. Australia has arrived on these shores looking to retain the urn they regained just before Christmas 2013.
Think back to the beginning of May this year and things looked fairly bleak as far as England’s expectations were concerned, but after one of the best ‘mini-series’ seen in this country involving New Zealand, has brought a brand new optimism for the home side.
There is little doubt about Australia’s fire power in their pace attack and they possess batsmen with the ability to change games and take them beyond the opposition, but they haven’t won over here since 2001. English conditions aren’t to be underestimated and many an overseas bowler has struggled to find the right length to bowl on English pitches and many a batsman has struggled with a ball ‘nibbling around a bit’.
England’s batting line-up looks pretty settled although if England’s optimism has swung wildly from May to now, the belief in Gary Ballance has gone the other way in equally alarming measure. Only two batsmen in history, Herbert Sutcliffe and Len Hutton, have scored their first 1,000 test runs in fewer innings than Ballance has. Yet, the manner of his dismissals against New Zealand has brought a focus on his technique. To me, not being the greatest judge of technique, it looked more like he needed to work on what was going on in his head rather than with his general game.
There is a key element for me with England and it is Ian Bell. No player on either side has had as long a Test career as Bell, having made his debut in the final test at The Oval against West Indies in 2004. Michael Clarke made his test debut a few months later and the comparisons between the two are interesting. Both have played 110 matches with Clarke scoring 1,157 more runs. Clarke has scored 28 tons to Bell’s 22 and if you look at how both players are viewed around the world then Clarke is considered a much better player.
This is a crucial series for Bell. He is now installed at number four in the batting order and throughout history teams put their best batsmen at either three or four. When Jonathan Trott was established in the side he was an ideal number three, with Kevin Pietersen following and Bell fitted in after that. But with both Trott and Pietersen unavailable for selection, Bell is now the focus for England’s batting hopes.
Bell is now in his 11th year as a test player and to put some perspective on this, when Ricky Ponting lead his side here in 2005, he had, had similar test career longevity. Yet consider the feeling about Ponting throughout world cricket at the time, he was considered one of the best players around and was a key wicket for any opposition. When Kumar Sangakkara came here in 2011 he too was in his 11th year as a test player. Again, the view of Sanga was that he was a crucial wicket and had developed into one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Sri Lankan batsman. Could we say that about Bell?
He seems to have played nearly all his career having to justify his selection. His first Ashes series was in that legendary 2005 one. Then, he struggled to deal with an impressive Aussie attack, scoring just 171 runs in 10 innings, passing 50 twice both at Old Trafford and bagged a pair at The Oval. He then scored two more half-centuries during the 2009 series, but it was the 2013 series when he really came to the fore. Three hundreds in that series and many have stated he was probably the main difference between the two sides, although the shambolic way the visitors approached the series probably gave the hosts a crucial, and telling start.
There are those around the England cricket team who will vouch for Bell’s apparent need to be continuously reminded of his own ability and that there probably lies the key ingredient to whether any professional sportsman makes it at their chosen event. When they reach the elite level then any difference, however small, can make all the difference, but equally, it is often belief which sets people apart. This could be where a coach such as Trevor Bayliss could provide the additional boost to his confidence Bell needs.
Since Gower, Bell is possibly the finest looking English batsman I’ve watched in the past thirty five years, with the possible exception of Michael Vaughan. Bell has all the shots, and when on song can play them better than most. Since he was a junior he was touted as an England player and yet you feel so many have had more faith in his ability all through his career than he ever has. After a few disappointing innings he always seems to be having to prove his place. Surely that shouldn’t happen for a player with the experience he has. In his early career he was accused of only scoring hundreds when teammates before him had.
His record in England against Australia is pretty good, but not as good as his career average. 873 runs in 25 innings @ 47.70, compared to a career average of 49.89, and those three centuries in 2013 remain his only three figure scores. He only averages 37.36 down under and so if we were to compare his Ashes career then one would hope he can pick up where he left off last time the Aussies were here. Fifteen of his twenty-two centuries have come in home tests which again would point to conditions being in his favour this summer, however his recent series against New Zealand produced a paltry 42 runs in four innings. In fact, his last eight innings since his hundred in Antigua back in April have moved his career tally on by only 55 with five scores lower than 1.
Bell, of course, may be considered fortunate Trott, Pietersen, Strauss and Prior have gone as now there are plenty of young players who are still trying to forge their way in test cricket and therefore a man of Bell’s experience is worth his place in the side. Dropping him now would presumably see him replaced by a player making his debut and that would weaken the batting line-up at a time when Ashes experience, especially a successful one, will be important. Other than Bell, only Anderson, Broad and Cook have savoured an Ashes series win and you cannot underestimate this, particularly when things get tight and tense, as they no doubt will do over the coming weeks. But his career has seen him overtaken by Alistair Cook, who began his career about eighteen months later and has over 1,600 more runs, and more recently by Joe Root. You could argue those players represent more important wickets to England than Bell, despite my assertion of him having the better technique. Whilst Bell has struggled over his last eight innings, Root has scored 458 runs. He was two runs short of scoring three centuries in his last six tests. Over his last eight innings, Cook has done even better with 553 runs.
When players are struggling form at test level it is generally suggested to send them back to their counties to score runs, and Bell has certainly done that with a century against Worcester and 90 against Durham. But then scoring runs at county level is not really the problem for a player like Bell and the standard of county bowling may not be the best challenge for him, but if he needed to get back into form then it was the correct move. Three years ago Bell was the ‘belle of the ball’, whether he can repeat that remains to be seen but there’s little doubt if he can finally prove people wrong and emerge as one of the finest batsmen of his generation then England could be well on their way to blunt the Aussie challenge.
If he can produce performances such as we saw two years ago then he might yet be considered as one of the finest of his generation, but Ian, if you ask for whom the bell tolls – it tolls for thee.