Over the weekend, Scyld Berry called for Ian Bell to be axed from England’s Test side for the upcoming series with New Zealand. It’s not the first time someone has called for his head and it won’t be the last, but this one struck a nerve. The piece was more than just a confusing argument; it represented the seemingly ceaseless dismissals of his performances for England.
This point of view is becoming tiresome. Since returning to the England Test team post-Jamaica dumping in 2009 Bell has risen to almost every challenge placed in front of him. He has headed off the insatiable detractors at every turn, yet still seems to be a magnet for criticism. In this instance Berry argues for Joe Root to take Bell’s place in New Zealand, with the latter reduced to some sort of fire-fighting role should it all go to pieces against Australia in the summer.
Leaving aside that he seems to have forgotten Root is already in possession of a Test spot, meaning this argument shouldn’t even be Root v Bell in the first place, he completely glosses over the Warwickshire man’s good run of recent form and places far too much emphasis on a very small sample size of Root’s international performances. That England’s next big thing is exceptionally talented and has begun his career at the top level superbly is not in doubt, but using one Test (a Test in which he was outscored by one IR Bell, at that) as proof he should replace a man with nearly 6000 runs is ludicrous.
There is no doubt Bell had a difficult 2012, but it’s a year which should be put into context. England lost half their Test matches, they lost their captain mid-way through and beyond Alastair Cook (and Kevin Pietersen, for the most part) none of the batsmen had a particularly good time of it. There were some truly appalling shot selections in India which spoke of a scrambled mind, yet he still made a century in the final game – which Berry apparently slept through, for he does not mention it despite making a big play of Root’s 73 in the first innings – having come in with England still under pressure, made runs in Galle, was virtually single-handed in his resistance at the Oval and helped Jonny Bairstow steer England towards respectability at Lord’s.
Since Andy Flower took over, Bell averages 70.76 in home Test matches. He averaged 65.80 in the last away Ashes series. England’s next 13 matches after New Zealand are either at home or in Australia. Perhaps these numbers should count for more than a 73 made against Ishant Sharma. If Berry’s argument was that England should rotate their squad for this tour then it would have some merit. It might be worth giving Root, Bairstow and Nick Compton the opportunity to prove their worth while the big guns rest up for a busy 18 months. Instead he’s chosen an easy target to push the case for the current flavour of the month.
Quite what Bell has to do to dispel the critics for good is anyone’s guess. He averaged over 100 in 2011 and that still didn’t work; Michael Clarke averaged a similar amount in 2012 and seems to be on the brink of sainthood. The parameters shift when it comes to Ian Bell. In one day cricket, too, his place is ‘under threat’ (at least in the eyes of those outside the management team) constantly. First he couldn’t excel in that format, then he couldn’t do it in India, now he can’t do it in big chases. Heading into the New Zealand series his average since returning to the top of the order last summer is almost 56; only two players in history have a higher career average than that. Still people aren’t satisfied. Still there is a constant call for someone else, someone ‘better’.
Maybe true appreciation will only come once he’s gone. England have a lot of talented young batsmen; none are anywhere near ready to replace someone of Bell’s calibre yet. Bairstow has struggled all winter while Root is very inexperienced and, in any case, is (one imagines) already pencilled in to start in Dunedin. It’s time to lay off their number five. The failings he supposedly suffers from are, almost universally, the failings he had during the first part of his career and have been emphatically overcome during his second coming. He has 17 Test hundreds; more than Atherton and Thorpe, more than Amiss, Edrich and Gatting. And a better average than all of those players too. Unfortunately, old opinions die hard. What will it take to silence the doubters?