Alex Massie

Solving the Ian Bell Question

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Sometimes I wonder if I'm the only person who ever defends Ian Bell. Not that this will do him much good since it seems probable that he'll be dropped for the second test against the West Indies tomorrow. An odd consensus appears to have emerged that Bell is especially culpable for England's failures in the first test and that, accordingly, his is the head that must roll. Mike Selvey fires his Katyushas at Bell today:

Last Saturday, before lunch on what was to prove the final day of the first Test at Sabina Park, Ian Bell played a stroke of such staggering ineptitude that it alone should be reason enough to ensure he does not bat again for England for a considerable while. Bell is a batsman of immense talent which he has failed consistently to covert that into ability by performance.

He is a fine technician, and for a while now has been in the sort of form of which others can only dream. He knocks it around like a champ. And that is the criminality of it: Alastair Cook has a proven temperament but is struggling technically; Paul Collingwood would scrap until his last breath but has no game to call on. But Bell, he has it all, yet is wasting it wantonly. He is either cricketingly thick or just mentally flabby.

There's obviously some truth to this. Bell is infuriatingly inconsistent. Too often he does not exude confidence at the crease and he too frequently supplies his numerous detractors with all the ammunition they need. And yet Selvey's argument is perversely illogical. True, Bell can no longer be considered a young or promising batsman but I cannot see the sense in acknowledging that Bell has more talent - and hence more upside - than either Cook or Collingwood and then arguing that it's the Warwickshire batsman who should be dropped. Bell's "floor" may be lower than those of his rivals/team-mate but his "ceiling" is also higher. Dropping Bell, then, limits the maximum potential in the England team. I don't see the sense in dropping the fellow you consider the better player.

However, it is also the case that I think it's also clear that Bell should not be batting at 3. In 31 innings at first wicket down he averages just 31 and has yet to record a century. By contrast, batting at 5 or 6 he has six centuries in 33 innings at an average of 51. This seems a sufficiently stark statistical difference as to be convincing. Granted, this doesn't solve England's problem at 3, given that Pietersen seems determined to stick at 4. But it does suggest that England will upgrade their batting potential if they drop Bell down the order to 5 -  a position from which he has in fact consistently converted his ability into runs...

Yes, Bell played a poorly judged shot in the second innings at Sabina Park. But why pick on Bell alone? Cook scored just four runs in the match and played two equally awful shots to ensure that each England innings got off to a terrible start. And yet Cook's place seems secure (if only, perhaps, because England didn't take another opener), Rum.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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