England’s Ian Bell and Gary Ballance need fast injection of confidence
A careless run-out in the first Test in Grenada in mid-April hardly seemed to be of much consequence to Ian Bell. He had with those silky cover drives flowing off his bat and all was reassuringly well with the world. Class was prevailing. In the longer-term scheme of things being run-out in the second innings for 11 after a mix-up with Gary Ballance would not matter much.
As cricketing sages keep saying, however, nothing can ever be taken for granted in this game. Since then Bell has scored 44 runs in seven innings and the Ashes series is round the corner. Bell has outscored Ballance in this series – 43 runs to 36 – but that is hardly a source of merriment.
Bell is supposed to be one of the bankers for Alastair Cook in this Ashes summer. In 2013 he held the side together against Australia, scoring 562 runs at an average of 62, with three centuries. Given the odd controversial ostracism, Bell is critical to England’s plans this summer – yet he cannot buy a run. He does not look to be in particularly bad form. It does not look a foreign game to him but he keeps getting out.
Since that vintage series against Australia he has played 17 Tests and he has averaged 29. There is no particular pattern to Bell’s recent dismissals. He has driven at Tim Southee’s away swingers to be caught at slip twice in this series. On Tuesday , stationed there only the ball before, against an off-spinner, just as he was in Brisbane in the last Ashes series.
At Lord’s he attracted a beauty from Matt Henry. In the Caribbean he chopped on, he was caught and bowled and eventually so discombobulated that he reviewed an lbw decision to discover that the ball from Jerome Taylor was hitting the middle of middle.
Bell, like Ballance, needs an injection of confidence and he needs some batting. It may seem odd that a man with 110 Test caps to his name might crave reassurance but that is often the way.
Years ago I overheard a mid-wicket conversation between Dennis Amiss and David Smith, the opening pair for Warwickshire. I expected to hear Amiss, who had scored approximately 40,000 first-class runs at the time, offering some paternal advice to his young partner. What I actually heard was rather different. It was Amiss anxiously asking Smith, “Are my feet moving OK? Is my bat coming down straight?” Sometimes it does not matter how many runs you have scored.
By quirks of the fixture list it is possible for Bell and Ballance to play only one Championship match for their respective counties before . Hence the restoration process is not straightforward.
At another time the simplest solution might be to drop one or both of them. The benefits of dropping players is often underestimated, especially by the cricketers involved. Look at the recent experience of Joe Root, dropped for the last Sydney Test, a gut-wrenching experience that reminded him that he never wanted to feel that way again. Andrew Strauss, Michael Clarke, Ricky Ponting have all benefited from being dropped. In fact any cricketer worth his salt comes back stronger.
First there is anger and a sense of betrayal, then a renewed determination to prove the blighters wrong. This was Bell’s experience in February 2009. He was dropped after England’s capitulation to West Indies in Jamaica, when they were bowled out for 51. It was only the first Test of the series but he was banished.
Bell reacted as England hoped. He channelled some of his frustration into a rigorous fitness regime. He studied his game and had to wait six months before being recalled. On his return Bell was at his most prolific; in 2010 and 2011 he averaged 86 for England.
The judicious dropping of a player can pay dividends. The trouble is that the ploy has already been used with Bell and the timing now, with Australia coming next month, is mighty inconvenient. In fact, the expectation is that England will stick with Bell for the start of the Ashes series – but they will be doing so anxiously.
The problem of Ballance may be more technical than temperamental. He prospered in the West Indies, averaging 66, but he has been out of sync in this series. There is a pattern to his dismissals. Trent Boult has dispatched him three times, bowled twice in this match and caught in the slips at Lord’s.
Ballance has a problem with left-arm pacemen. Fortunately he will not have to face Boult again for a while. Unfortunately, unless the selectors lose faith, he will have to deal with both Mitchell Johnson and Mitchell Starc next month.