Sunday, 22 November 2015

The Bell tolls

Sunday, 22 November 2015
Yes, I know you're groaning as you read that title; I just couldn't resist. This week, England announced their squad for the upcoming tour of South Africa, and there was one name noticeably missing: Ian Bell. A veteran of over 100 tests, a senior figure in the team, and yet one that has struggled so much for runs over the past two years. The door has been left open for a future return to the side - and the way England's middle order has been, there is always a chance - yet at 33 years old, it's often hard for a player to come back after a drop like this.

Ian Bell has certainly been one of my favourite players for England over the past decade. There's that effortless sense of beauty about his batting, a player you could just sit and watch for hours. Just watch him play a late cut and you'll see that ease of timing, technique, and perfect placement that the rest of us can only dream of. There are those golden periods: the 2013 Ashes where his three centuries were key in the series win; average over a hundred in the summer of 2011, hitting four centuries (one a double) along the way. When he was on song, everything just looked too easy. But there as well was always the frustration. All the talent in the world, but not always the mentality to go with it. His early centuries always came once a teammate already had one on the board, and if there was a collapse he'd rarely be the man to stand up and fight. Of course, he improved with time - his resistance in Cape Town at the start of 2010 showing a different side to him - but it was a reputation that seemed always to follow him around. 118 tests show a fine career, but an average of 42.69 shows he could perhaps have made more of his talents.

And the past two years haven't been so fun to watch. The glorious summer of 2013 gave way to the whitewash of the winter, where Bell wasn't alone in struggling against the Australian bowlers. And since then it has been a mixed bag: odd centuries, odd fifties, but even more scores of nought or one. Mistakes in the field haven't helped either, with more than one dropped catch that has proved costly to the team cause. And so, a drop from the side doesn't come as a huge shock, but seeing him absent from the whole squad was a surprise. There's still the chance for him to knuckle down, make a ton of runs for Warwickshire, and force his way back into the side; but if this does turn out to be the end of his international career, it's a sad one indeed.

Of course, Bell's absence is not the only noteworthy selection or non-selection. Whilst Hales looks likely to be the next man opening alongside Cook, the inclusion of Compton shows the selectors aren't yet closing the door on anyone. With hindsight, they might be wishing they hadn't dropped him in the first place, so long has the search for an opening batsman gone on. It's a good decision: Compton has been one of the most consistent batsmen in county cricket over the past few years, and there's potential for a return at the top or at number three, his position for Middlesex. Gary Ballance also returns, and it will be interesting to see if he has adapted his game during his stint away. Bowling wise, with Wood and Finn both absent through injury, Woakes, Jordan, and Footitt come in. The omission of Plunkett is one that surprises me: after carrying the drinks in the UAE, South Africa is a place that looked made for him, and yet he has been leapfrogged by others. I am though, looking forward to seeing Mark Footitt potentially making his debut - a left-arm option and someone who has had a lot of success in the county game. Rashid also misses out with England very unlikely to need a second spinner, looking set to join up with Jason Gillespie in the Big Bash in Australia.

In the meantime, England's ODI team is on the rise. Whilst the first match saw the collapses of old, coming at both the start and the end of the innings, the next three have brought convincing victories and many impressive performances with them. There was the bowling of Topley in game one, with three wickets in the opening ten overs; Alex Hales's maiden century in the second match; the bowling of Chris Woakes at the death, with four wickets in both the second and third game; the way Taylor (67*) and Buttler (49*) chased down Pakistan's total in the third game, not the highest total to chase but coming to the crease in a far-from-easy situation; and Jason Roy making his maiden century as well in the final match, both openers really starting to flourish. And then there was Buttler.

Jos Buttler played the kind of innings that's still hard to believe, no matter how many times you watch it. He has now twice broken his own record for England's fastest ODI century, coming this time off a mere 46 deliveries. He scored in 360 degrees around the ground - giant sixes down the ground one minute, a four over the keeper's head the next. How can you set a field to that? How are mere mortals supposed to compete with that at all? This is a man who looked so bereft of any form, any confidence during the test series that he didn't play the final match. He could be a different person right now. It's his world, and we're just living in it.

If Buttler looks unrecognisable from just a few weeks ago, England's ODI cricket is looking unrecognisable from the start of the year, too. They're far from the finished article yet, but there's a lot more to be hopeful about than there ever was before. Even if ODI cricket is Pakistan's weaker format - being ranked eighth in the world - for a young England side, an away win in very unfamiliar conditions is a very good achievement. Now they will be hoping this form can extend to the Twenty20 side, with a three match series to come before the World Cup at the end of the winter.

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