Wednesday 13 June 2012

Bell selection makes sense...

Monday was bittersweet for Ian Bell. Where the wretched Birmingham weather had contrived to dash any hopes he may have harboured of scoring the additional 24 runs required to ensure he became the first Warwickshire player to score a Test century at Edgbaston, the rather more soothing news that he had been restored to England’s One Day International side as an opener offered some consolation. 

Many, perhaps even Bell himself, had felt that the Warwickshire batsman’s limited overs career was all but over after being dropped prior to the Pakistan ODI series at the beginning of the year, a series in which England seemed to make great strides as they cantered to a 4-0 victory. 
So often Bell's ODI story...
Bell has been somewhat of an enigma in ODI cricket, yet whilst the England management’s multi-lingual talents have not been called upon they are hitherto to succeed in unravelling the mystery of how such a wonderfully gifted batsman has managed to muster such decidedly mediocre returns (how modern history might have differed had Chancellor Hitler been granted access to an Ian Bell). It will have been a source of great frustration. An average of 34.04 at a strike-rate of 73.31 in ODI’s, with one century and 19 half-centuries, does little to warm the cockles. 

Perhaps such underwhelming ODI returns can be ascribed to Bell’s key scoring areas being cut off. That delicious late cut to third man, cover drives not so much dripping with class as haemorrhaging and a crisp clip through the square-leg region have brought Bell considerable success in Test cricket, yet defensive field settings oft encountered during ODI’s tend to remove those from his spectrum. For a player that attains a high percentage of his runs in boundaries it presents a sizeable problem, much as Test wicket-keeper Matt Prior has discovered in the shorter formats of the game. 

As an opener, Bell’s prowess diminishes further (he has played 28 of his 108 ODI’s as an opening batsman), where his average reduces to 33 and his strike-rate to 70.69. Far from inspirational, yet if there is a place for Ian Bell in this side then it is limited to such a role. As opener, Bell has the freedom to play classically during the initial powerplay overs when the aforementioned scoring areas remain unattended, and possesses the lofted straight shots necessary to combat spinners outside of them. 

The wisdom of a top three containing Alastair Cook, Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott has been questioned in some quarters, and admittedly on paper looks to present all the aggression of a tranquilised kitten, but in those three batsmen England possess a solidarity that provides the perfect foil for their stylistic preference. Where many sides look to score heavily whilst fielding restrictions are in place, England appear to have reverted to the old fashioned ethos of building steadily and keeping wickets in hand for an assault at the death. A scrupulously ungenerous bowling attack renders this a possibility. It isn’t spectacular, it isn’t exhilarating, but if performances in the UAE are anything to go by, it is effectual and more importantly suits England’s personnel. 

So many doubts, yet Bell finds himself in sublime form. Averaging 111 in the recently concluded Test series against the West Indies, and with 82 runs to his name in the CB40 competition for Warwickshire just last month, confidence will be sky high. In fact, confidence will be rather fearful that a chap named Ian Bell is threatening to usurp it from its throne of haughtiness, thus ending a reign last interrupted by the mindset of Moses moments after his successful parting of the Red Sea. A new ball from either end should prove an advantage for Bell, too, where his sweet timing and placement ought to bring full value for his shots. 

There will be no more chances, though, should this latest experiment fail. Bell is not merely visiting Last Chance Saloon, rather embarking upon a desperate struggle to cling on to the bar rail as an irritated doorman hauls him out after receiving his ticket, but where stepping in to the shoes of the now retired Kevin Pietersen may once have rendered the unassuming Bell a mere rabbit in the headlights, and though his current record suggests otherwise, there is an inkling he may just prove a revelation.

Tuesday 5 June 2012

ECB - What have you done?

I have been away for the past week sampling the delights of camping across various rain stricken sites in England and Wales, so you’ll hopefully forgive me for this rather late piece on the Kevin Pietersen retirement debacle. I must also apologise for another piece on the inventor of the switch-hit, alas it seems noteworthy occurrences and Mr Pietersen come very much as a package. I’m a huge fan of KP, and have made no bones about it in past articles, so you can only imagine my horror when after minutes twiddling thumbs as my ancient iPhone 3 strove heroically to gain a modicum of reception I was given the news by my trusty ESPNcricinfo app.

Twenty20 will miss the switch hit..
The One Day International retirement in itself wasn’t the cause of the horror. I saw that one coming, albeit perhaps twelve months or so down the line. Pietersen isn’t the first English cricketer to make noises suggesting that all is not well with the players when it comes to the deluge of 50 over cricket pencilled in to their calendars. The likes of Graeme Swann, another key performer across all three formats of the game, have mumbled their misgivings, and it is easy to sympathise given the vast amount of time spent away from their young families each year as they don the three lions in all corners of the world. It was the seemingly desperate handling of the situation by the ECB that provided the greatest cause for concern, not to mention blindingly obvious double standards.

The ECB inform us that their strategies across the two limited overs formats are closely aligned, and hence require the same personnel to be available for both. Despite being an utterly ludicrous statement, given that the difference between ODI’s and Twenty20 cricket is every bit as vast as the difference between Test cricket and ODI’s, do the ECB believe we have forgotten that, up until last year’s world cup, Andrew Strauss played ODI cricket despite having already announced his retirement from Twenty20 cricket?  Likewise, England’s ODI strategy is very much based around the solidarity of Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott at the top of their batting order, yet neither name features on England’s Twenty20 teamsheet. Players of such a style can find success in ODI cricket, but an ability to nudge the singles fetches little reward in the shortest format. Why, then, must Pietersen be available for both or none?

Have the ECB forgotten that Pietersen remains the number one ranked batsman in the world in Twenty20 cricket? Have they also, in their hour of lunacy, overlooked the fact that shorn of Pietersen (man of the tournament as England triumphed four years ago, lest we forget) England hold two hopes, slim and none, of retaining their world Twenty20 crown in Sri Lanka later this year? Oh, and in the words of boxing eccentric Don King, “slim’s outta town.” Without Pietersen, England’s side begins to look all too ordinary.

Pietersen retiring from ODI’s isn’t ideal - losing a world class player and your best batsman in each and every format never is - but the needs of the individual need to be considered. The ECB have shown appalling man management in issuing their abrupt ultimatum. The question of whether they would have acted similarly had it been another member of the side is a delicate one, but perhaps worth asking. Tensions do, after all, run high where the ECB and Kevin Pietersen are concerned. After a series of run-ins commencing with the captaincy and Peter Moores saga, through to a brace of confrontations over Pietersen’s use of the social networking site Twitter (he aimed a barb at the ECB after being dropped from the Twenty20 team to face Pakistan in 2010, and more recently was hauled over the coals for a slur against Sky commentator Nick Knight), and now a falling out over Pietersen’s participation in Twenty20 cricket after announcing his retirement from ODI cricket it would be of little surprise if the ECB were reaching the end of their tether as far as any dealings with the middle order batsman go.

What must be remembered, though, is that Pietersen has often been in the right throughout the aforementioned confrontations. Pietersen saw first-hand that Moores was not the right man to lead England forward, taking a risk that ultimately cost him his position as captain in order to voice his concerns. Since that moment England have enjoyed unparalleled success in the Test arena. Likewise, use of social networking sites is a touchy subject amongst many in the England camp, depending on who you speak to, and whilst players would perhaps do well to censor some of their innermost thoughts on such public platforms it would be wrong to discourage its use, within limits. Pietersen may yet also be in the right with regard to his ODI retirement. The ODI schedule for England’s cricketers, indeed worldwide, is hugely excessive. As players age their priorities will change, and it appears that Pietersen’s have now done so as he approaches his 32nd birthday. As his team-mate Jonathan Trott says, it is of little surprise.

The worry now, of course, is how the ECB will deal with any future lulls in Pietersen’s Test form. Previously, with England’s tour of the UAE being a prime example, Pietersen was able to regain form after an abject Test series in the subsequent ODI series, where he scored back to back centuries. He will no longer have such a luxury. Could the forthcoming series against South Africa be Pietersen’s last for England? Given how the ECB have treated their premier batsman in this latest episode it would come as little surprise, should Pietersen fail to perform against the country of his birth.

England fans will hope that the differences can be reconciled between Pietersen and the ECB. After all, England needs Pietersen at both Test and Twenty20 level. It is disappointing to see one of England’s greatest middle order batsmen handed such an ultimatum but, regardless of the fallout, let us hope that it doesn’t contribute toward curtailing an already magnificent Test career. It isn’t just England that needs KP, it is the sport of cricket and the entertainment business that does, too.