When Ian Bell struck 143 in his first Test innings of 2015 his exclusion from England’s touring party for South Africa seemed unlikely. But seven months is a long time in cricket, especially for England players, the busiest in the Test arena.
Four half-centuries in 23 innings since – top score 65 not out – has resulted in the removal of a senior player that is difficult to argue against. Bell battled hard with little reward against the turning ball in the UAE, but it was his run of low scores against the high class pace bowling of New Zealand and Australia that was perhaps a bigger factor in his axing.
Dale Steyn and co. were presumably considered too big a challenge for a player who failed to record more than a solitary run in nine of those knocks since his century in the Caribbean. Bell’s age counted against him in the choice between the Warwickshire man and Gary Ballance, when the former’s 33 years – or vast Test experience at least – was a crucial factor in his retention earlier in the year.
Both Ballance and Bell were under huge pressure after the second Ashes Test and it was the Yorkshire player who made way for the in-form Jonny Bairstow. The old hand was not only retained, but promoted in the order, batting at three in six Tests since.
So what has changed? Giving youth a chance and Ballance’s strong start to his career partly explain the switch, but Bell’s twin half-centuries at Edgbaston justified the selectors’ choice – he was thought to be more likely to produce that Ballance in that pivotal Test, and so it proved.
The selectors now think Ballance and Nick Compton are the more likely run-makers, an eye on the future notwithstanding. This might just reflect a personal preference of Trevor Bayliss, but the characteristics of Bell’s slump must have alarmed the selectors.
Nine of Bell’s 22 dismissals since his North Sound ton have been bowled or LBW. Seven of these have been for 0 or 1. A bad habit of binary returns, made worse by the manner of the dismissals.
The balanced tempo that is the hallmark of Bell’s best innings has also deserted him. He was skittish in his crucial knocks at his home ground, seemingly trying to hit his way back into form – a brave approach that made his first innings aberration against Nathan Lyon forgivable.
However, that positive intent has not been maintained. Bell laboured against Pakistan’s spinners, hitting 158 runs in six innings, at a strike rate of 31.6 – the lowest of England’s top order.
A comparison of Bell and Alastair Cook’s innings in the first innings of the third Test at Sharjah shows just how becalmed England’s number three was in his battle to regain form. Being proactive against good spinners on a tricky pitch is not easy, but Bell’s intent was lacking.
He left alone or played defensive shots at 70% of the 158 balls he received in scoring 40. Cook hit 49 from 119 balls, leaving alone or playing defensively to 45% of his deliveries. Bell didn’t just fail to dominate the barrage of spin – 47 of the 51 balls he faced from Wahab Riaz and Rahat Ali were dots.
All this points to a player ill-equipped to cope with a skilled South African pace attack that can be complimented by the leg-spin of Imran Tahir. Whether those who fill Bell’s shoes can do so remains to be seen – there might yet be a way back for the 118-Test veteran.