By David de Winter – Sports Editor
England’s tour to the UAE has been a somewhat chastening experience. The test team, maybe a tad unluckily, lost 2-0 to Pakistan in a series characterised by attritional cricket, worrying collapses and crucial dropped catches. However, redemption has come in the form of a 3-1 series victory in the ODIs featuring perhaps the most remarkable display of hitting ever witnessed by an Englishman on the international stage.
Jos Buttler’s incredible innings of 116 not out off just 52 balls signifies England’s evolution from a team of reticent conservatism to electrifying dynamism. No longer are they encumbered by the straitjacketed orthodoxy that characterised Alastair Cook’s reign as captain. Buttler, whose three ODI hundreds have all been record breakers, typifies the demeanour of the contemporary cricketer: fearless, a 360 degree shot compass and the ability to hit the ball out of the park. His innings reminded me of AB de Villiers at his best – audacious, delicate and bludgeoning.
Yet, to go with all Buttler’s remarkable fireworks was a refreshing ability to lay solid foundations. Openers Jason Roy and Alex Hales, too often dashers who score an attractive 30-odd but no more, announced their newfound maturity by scoring maiden ODI hundreds in rather unfamiliar circumstances. Both are renowned for their shot-making but instead dropped anchor as the situation demanded and grafted their innings; they were rewarded accordingly.
I have watched Roy for years as a Surrey fan and have been as infatuated by his talent as much as I have been frustrated by his tendency to throw away promising starts with rash shots. As befits a cricketer of his ability (and self-confidence), he tends to think he can hit every ball for six instead of playing each ball on its merits. His innings on Friday showed the world that he can knuckle down for the long-haul, not just the opening powerplay.
England announced their Test squad for the tour to South Africa and there were a few surprises, not least of which was the omission of Ian Bell. Since having a lean summer, Bell has been the subject of intense scrutiny, especially since he moved to the seemingly pivotal number three position in the batting order. His statistics in the UAE (158 runs at 32 apiece) are respectable, but it is the manner in which he accumulated those runs which caused the most worry.
Bell has always been easy on the eye, a player who would caress, feather and deflect the ball wherever he desired. I was always surprised when he would get out because he would always look so at ease at the crease. Conversely, in the UAE he was jumpy, uncertain and lacking in fluency; he never seemed himself when on strike.
Nevertheless I feel it is the wrong decision to discard him for the tour to South Africa. Bell has a wealth of experience and, I know it is a cliché, but form is temporary and class is permanent. The Warwickshire man has faced the likes of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander numerous times and that knowledge is priceless, especially given that the only other batsman in the likely starting top six to have faced the Proteas in South Africa is captain Alastair Cook.
Given the task of replacing Bell and opening the innings will fall to two of Hales, the recalled Nick Compton and Gary Ballance. Now although I think Compton was harshly treated when he was discarded unceremoniously in 2013 after a dodgy series against New Zealand, I don’t think he is deserving of a recall. He is only a year younger than Bell and has done nothing out of the ordinary in the preceding two seasons to suggest he will be anything more than a stop-gap.
Hales has been rewarded for some decent form in the one-day arena with a call-up to the Test squad. The fast pitches of South Africa should suit him but I also don’t think he is a long-term solution as Cook’s opening partner. Whilst possessing a good eye, the Nottinghamshire man is vulnerable outside off stump and against the relentless accuracy of Steyn I fear he will be found out.
However, recalling Balance is a good move. The Zimbabwe-born Yorkshireman has a good record in the longer format of the game (he averages 47 in Tests and over 50 in first-class cricket) and more importantly seems to have the mental aptitude to bat for long periods. He also has a weakness outside off stump (who doesn’t?) because he plays from the crease instead of getting forward to the length ball (rather like Alastair Cook). One feels that this series could be a make-or-break series for Ballance; the opportunity to cement the number three spot is his for the taking – can he grasp it?
Finally, if this is to be Ian Bell’s farewell (which I hope it isn’t) I would like to express how much I have enjoyed watching him bat in an England shirt. In an era where power and strength has become the norm for batsmen, Bell’s finesse and elegance at the crease have been a source of much joy. To watch him caress a cover drive is akin to listening to a recital by Jacquelin du Pré or to watch a Mark Rylance performance on stage; pure artistry.
For what it’s worth, here’s my England starting XI for the Boxing Day Test at Kingsmead: Cook, Compton, Ballance, Root, Taylor, Stokes, Buttler, Ali, Broad, Anderson, Footit/Woakes.
If ever you were in doubt of Ian Bell’s enduring class, take a look at these: