Ian Bell: England’s man for all forms of the game

It’s one of the oldest phrases in the book, but what the hell: “Like a fine wine, Ian Bell seems to get better with age.”

At the moment England can’t get enough of Ian Bell, Ashes centurion, slayer of the Australians, now nicknamed “The Terminator” by Shane Warne and recent match-winner of their latest tour game against the Prime Ministers.

Certainly this is a far cry from the hellish experience he suffered four years ago in Australia where one felt he was surely being pushed to within one step of a breakdown such was his torment at the hands of a mighty fine Australian outfit.

Yet that was a different Ian Bell, certainly compared with the authorative, commanding batsman who now regularly accepts centre stage for England though who is rarely afforded it.

Indeed after two years of middling success and a constant barrage of criticism over a whole range of things such as his inability to score a ODI hundred, his inability to score a Test century on his own, and his ability to find such weird ways to get himself out when well set, perhaps now the time finally has come to accept Ian Bell for what he has finally become.

Because he is now probably England’s best batsmen, perhaps in any form of the game. Sure Kevin Pietersen has the extravagance and ability to dominate even the best bowlers, but his double century not withstanding he has still to regularly hit big scores consistently to match up to his talent.

Cook and Trott may have the numbers-Cook the most runs recently, Trott the highest average-but neither particularly dominates. They both set themselves up, to nudge and to nurdle-more to infuriate a bowler than to cow them. Strauss is now more of a dasher-a more dominating and better batsman but not quite as effective a run scorer as in his early days in Test cricket.

All the while there is Bell who in a sense fits the bill of all.

Certainly style is not a problem, as he has a game the purists dream of. His cover drive is nigh on glorious, all high elbow and a lovely fluid movement of the bat while he also sweeps like the best of them.  He now dominates bowlers, not in a Jacques Kallis powerful kind of way, but more through cashing in on poorer balls, threading eye of the needle drives around the park and forever looking to move his feet to come down the track to spinners as if his name were Sachin and he came from India.

Yet he has coupled this with a stick ability that makes him respected. Lest we forget that it was Bell who kept Collingwood company for much of his rearguard action in South Africa, that it was he who played lone hands to keep England competitive when they were down in Perth and in Brisbane.

The question now for him is what next. Exciting times these are for England’s Test number six. One would venture a place at number five in the World Cup will beckon, though don’t be too surprised if a move to open comes about if Davies fails to hit his straps.

He has played that role with moderate success before but he is more than capable of playing it better now as he keeps the scoreboard ticking, can clear the boundary if needed and plays both seam and spin well-something which neither Davies or Kieswetter can state confidently.

Then there is the Twenty20 team. Bell hasn’t been part of that for a long time, but stated after his ton for the tourists against the Prime Ministers XI that he fancied a bit of T20 for England. So here’s a mad idea-make him captain once Collingwood eventually retires and slowly but surely integrate him into the team.

His batting easily surpasses Collingwood, he has captaincy experience with Warwickshire and appears to thrive on it, and his ground fielding-though not Collingwood-esque-is still probably amongst the best in the world-a vital part of T20 cricket.

In Test matches, he’ll almost certainly take on the number five position-as a key pivot in this England team-and may ultimately end up back at number three where he so wants to be in a couple of years.

One wouldn’t doubt him to do it, because after years of struggle things finally look like their paying off for Ian Bell, who now surely must be England’s man for all forms of the game.

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Darren Sammy is a sensible choice to lead West Indies’ next generation

West Indies' New Captain

Once upon a time the news proclaiming the appointment of a new captain of the West Indies would be a world event, but the low-key greeting given to the announcement of Darren Sammy as captain, told a story both how far the West Indies have fallen and about Sammy himself.

Some all-time greats of world cricket have inhabited the role down the years, and in that respect Sammy fails to match up-though few would.

But Sammy is an intriguing choice as skipper, he has never been a Test regular and his stats suggest he is far from the West Indies’ best player. But if that was the criteria for captaincy then Chris Gayle would have retained the captaincy or Dwayne Bravo could have inherited the role.

Yet their status as the team’s leading players has also caused its own problems, with both involved in disputes with the WICB which has ultimately cost them both their claims for the captaincy as well as Dinesh Ramdin and Jerome Taylor.

Of the remaining candidates Sammy is the standout choice; both as a committed and passionate player for the West Indies but also an experienced captain with the Leeward Islands. These qualities will be important as he leads a younger generation of West Indian cricketers forward.

But it also lays down a marker for the younger players to follow. Sammy’s commitment to the West Indies’ will be total, could either Bravo or Gayle who have both embroiled themselves in rows with their board and are IPL-contracted.

Gayle axed

The potential for further trouble down the line is not what the West Indies need as they look to rebuild with younger players like Adrian Barath and Kemar Roach.

A stable structure and leadership, after years of captaincy ruled as much by a player’s status more than a coherent strategy, is what is desired and it is precisely this ideal which has led the West Indies to Sammy, who of all the remaining candidates has the most captaincy experience-gained with the Windward Islands-and international experience.

The experience with the Windward Islands is key because unlike recent captains like Brian Lara and Gayle, Sammy has regular experience of captaincy and can lead with imagination and confidence, not to mention provide leadership of a team which have badly missed it as their fortunes have stuttered.

But he also has experience captaining a young team with some success. The Windward Islands are traditionally one of the smallest and unsuccessful teams in the Caribbean, but under Sammy’s captaincy, a number of their players have developed into international cricketers.

Recent graduates include Shane Shillingford, Andre Fletcher and Nelon Pascal who have all been involved in West Indies teams in the past year, though Fletcher is missing from the squad in Sri Lanka.

Nelon Pascal and Andre Fletcher have thrived under Sammy for the Windward Islands

It is these qualities which make the appointment of Sammy a sensible one for the West Indies.

He fits the profile as a safe candidate whose attentions will be focussed solely on improving his team’s fortunes, boasts significant captaincy experience and has also dealt with younger players who make a significant part of this West Indies squad.

The key for both the West Indies and for Sammy is that they are patient in their expectations of this captaincy, as tangible change or even progress will take time to be achieved after years of regression.

The West Indies’ potential for success and producing talented cricketers capable of impacting on the world stage remains in place, yet they have not had the stable environment to help these players develop.

Results may not come immediately, and this is the vital point for any plans in the future, but the selectors must trust their decision and back Sammy. His appointment may lack sparkle compared to his illustrious predecessors but in the circumstances it could turn out to be the sensible choice.

Eight points for Australia to move forward after India series

These are unprecedented times for Ricky Ponting and Australia, now removed from top spot in the ICC rankings and deposited into fifth place and with plenty to ponder after India inflicted a third consecutive Test defeat after their loss against Pakistan in England.

Now, with a home Ashes series to ponder, Ponting and his team find themselves under increasing scrutiny, as Australia attempt to work out where things have gone wrong and what can be put right.

Now with a potentially big 12 months coming up for Australia with an Ashes series and a World Cup to defend, there is plenty of work ahead for Australia to do if they are to get back on track.

New Blood for a New Middle Order

Loyalty can be a good thing in a captain and coach, especially when things pay off and a batsman makes runs, yet it can also be a weakness which hinders change when it is most needed. Whatever Ponting and Tim Nielsen say about their batting, change must be considered.

The prime candidates for the chop are Mike Hussey and Marcus North, who despite scoring a brilliant backs-to-the-wall hundred in India scored only 13 as an aggregate from his three other innings.

But who can replace these two? They could start with Usman Khawaja, the 23-year old New South Wales batsman who got his season off to a flyer with a double hundred against South Australia, or even the recovering Callum Ferguson, who is getting his career started after injury or even Mike’s brother David Hussey, who has scored runs for fun against all attacks yet has never been given an opportunity at the highest level.

If not revolution, then revamp

The likelihood for change in the interim period before the Ashes is unlikely with such a key contest coming up but if Australia want to get their batsmen firing in the Ashes then the best thing they could consider is tinkering with their batting line-up as much as the batsmen.

Ponting’s place at number 3 has been secure for years, yet there are signs of aging-despite him being the standout middle order batsman in India. The assuredness of his run scoring has gone, and the certainty about which he would convert starts into big scores. Having seen Sachin Tendulkar hit prime form at number 4, Ponting could follow suit and position himself further down the order.

Michael Clarke could drop down to 5, a more natural position for a player whose technique seems a touch loose for number 4, and Mike Hussey, a former opener and someone more at home against the faster bowlers than the spinners at the moment, could come in at 3.

Who is leading this attack?

The phrase “leader of the bowling attack” seems to be a modern one, designed for people like Richard Hadlee and Allan Donald, who once would carry their attacks to the opposition. Yet there is some sense in having a stand-out figurehead bowler, England have one in James Anderson, South Africa in Dale Steyn and India in Zaheer Khan. So who is Australia’s?

The obvious answer is Mitchell Johnson, yet when he has blown distinctly hot and cold over the past 12 months and provides little of the consistency which Australia need. A far better candidate could be the durable and reliable Ben Hilfenhaus, who performed out of his skin in India and could well have a big part to play in the Ashes to come.

Pick the best all-round spinner, not the best one

Steven Smith is not, nor will he ever be, Shane Warne. That much is clear but he should still be picked above Nathan Hauritz. Hauritz is a decent, honest spinner and he has exceeded expectations since his international career.

Yet the question is more if Hauritz is at best a decent spinner, then why trade off his marginally superior ability as a bowler for the better all-round package which Smith offers?

Smith scores runs and could provide plenty of ballast for the middle order, while also bowling tidy leg spin and as the younger man he can well develop into a better spinner than Hauritz. Australia’s spin-bowling cupboard is bare, so why not choose your spinner not only on their ability as a spinner but as an all-round package to compensate? In which case the answer is Steven Smith plain and simple.

Stick with the captain

Talk of removing Ponting as captain continually resurfaces, recently voiced by Geoff Lawson, yet such talk is bunk. For all the weaknesses Ponting has as a tactician, he leads by example and remains the outstanding candidate. Talk of change is ludicrous, especially given that there are no candidates who standout.

Who could replace him? Michael Clarke? Struggling with form and desperately needing to get runs. Simon Katich? An elder statesman yes, but a long-term candidate for change he certainly isn’t. Beyond that there are little choices available, stick with Ricky, his career proves he has a habit of having his own way in the end.

Free Up Michael Clarke

Don’t burden one of your trump batsmen with a tag such as Captain in waiting. The T20 captaincy has exposed flaws in his batting and has hardly helped the team, with Clarke’s inability to clear the boundary and score at the required rate costing his team and clearly harming him.

An idea? Give up the T20 captaincy and pass it to Cameron White. Ceding the captaincy has hardly cost Ponting, nor has the idea of a dual partnership hurt England. Clarke could eventually succeed Ponting though he needs to be scoring runs to justify it. The best way to do that? Strip him of burdens, let him settle into his run scoring and then eventually grow organically into the role.

Prepare an Exit Strategy

Big changes will come in Australian cricket over the coming years with an aging middle order and a captain in his mid 30’s preparing to move. The key to how Australia manage could well be how they cope with the changes-especially given the manner in which they have struggled to stem the fall following the departure of their last generation.

Identify the key players who could well be international players such as Steven Smith, Josh Hazlewood and Peter George plus the likes of Khawaja, Ferguson and Phil Hughes, and grant them opportunities whenever you can. It’ll stand them and Australia in good stead when the time eventually comes for them to step up.

Don’t Panic!

Are Australia finished? No, of course not and to think otherwise is ludicrous. A fall in the rankings is a mere blow, but matters little in the long run. The depth of cricketing talent in Australia are perhaps not as strong as they were in the late 90s, but there is a rich heritage of developing promising players quickly and bouncing back in adversity.

They have this to fall back on, and they must know that whatever the humiliation of being reduced to number 5 in the world it is only temporary. A victory in the Ashes against England could help ease the pain.

If Australia can keep their heads, and put in place the right long-term plans to build again, they could turn this bad moment into a defining one.

Sensible cricket is at the heart of both Somerset and England’s recipes for success

Two games in 24 hours witnessed two thoroughly proficient performances of limited overs cricket as first England beat Pakistan and then Somerset defeated Essex in their Pro40 Semi-Final to set up a final against Warwickshire at Lords.

Both teams are enjoying a prolific time within limited overs cricket, England fresh from being crowned T20 World Champions have emerged victorious in series over Bangladesh and Australia, while Somerset reached the Twenty20 Finals Day only to be pipped by Hampshire and are now in the Pro40 final-not to mention being genuine contenders for the County Championship.

On paper there are plenty of similarities between the two teams, both are incredibly fit, well organised and drilled. Both are well led both in terms of captaincy and with the bat, England by Andrew Strauss, Somerset by Marcus Trescothick.

Both also contain versatile bowling attacks, with real quality spinners in Graham Swann and Murali Kartik, and explosive young talent in Eoin Morgan and Steven Davies, and for Somerset Jos Buttler and England’s very own Craig Kieswetter.

Yet the key for both teams, beyond the sheer depth of talent at their disposal, is that both harness it in the right way-using their talent to full, something which both team’s could have been accused of not doing in the past.

The buzz word around each team has been sensible cricket, not so much approaching matters in a cavalier matter but approaching it with a methodical, calculated approach while also performing their key skills under pressure.

Take England, who have yet to concede more than 150 runs in a T20 innings in almost 2 years, and Somerset, who lost only two of their 16 T20 matches and just two of their 11 Pro40 games. These are not statistics achieved through chance, but through rigorous effort and a methodical, common sense approach.

Certainly, the improvements in both lie in the powerful management both on, and off the field-both by their coaches Andy Flower and Andy Hurry, and on the field with Strauss and Trescothick.

The coaches are particularly key, Flower built on the base which was constructed by the well-meaning, but under-respected Peter Moores, who laid the foundations for this success. So too, as Hurry and Trescothick built on the base constructed by Justin Langer during his time as captain.

Langer, a keen workaholic whose career outlasted many more talented batsmen as a result, helped introduce the kind of work ethic and fitness work which were unpopular among certain maverick players like Ian Blackwell, but which has proved beneficial to the likes of James Hildreth and Peter Trego who are thriving, as are the team.

It is about managing resources, covering every base, rigorously planning ahead, and ensuring that skills are performed under even the most pressured of environments. These may sound purely like plain common sense, but that is the very notion which is at the heart of their success. Sensible cricket, which as both England and Somerset are proving, is also successful cricket.

Pakistan must use Twenty20 cricket to build for a brighter future

Not long ago a Pakistan team came to England guided by purpose, destiny, and wonderful cricketers and walked away with the World T20 trophy, a hatful of plaudits and plenty of great memories.

Now, that very same team have returned to England and have had a tour to forget for many reasons. Routed on the field, members of their squad have potentially been exposed off it.

The repercussions running through the game are significant and highly damaging, both for Pakistan and the cricketing world.

But setting scandal and outrage aside, it would be worth Pakistan assessing their performances on the field which have been as poor as any major Test playing nation has performed in England for years.

Even in Twenty20, a form of the game where they have recently excelled-as shown by the vibrant performances against Australia which now seem a lifetime ago.

Yet now they can’t even perform well in that, routed handsomely in both matches against England who to their credit were excellent. The One Day series coming up could well be a long and tortuous affair for these players.

Granted these players will have been affected by the off-field allegations, and their team is undoubtedly missing it’s three key players, yet these are still simply excuses for inadequate performances. In a tour of sorry sights, Tuesday’s dismal batting effort-all out for 89, and the turgid fielding display which followed were among the sorryest.

The question now for Pakistan is where do they go from here, looking even beyond the One Day Series, they now face a tour of South Africa and a set of limited overs games against the Proteas and New Zealand, both challenging teams.

If they were looking for a change in fortunes in both their One Day, Twenty20 and Test match cricket, then they could do worse then look beyond the current personnel and introducing fresh blood into the team.

One of the things Pakistan cricket is renowned for is their ability to discover genius at an early age, and then have it perform at the highest level as quickly as possible. It happened with Wasim Akram, it happened with Javed Miandad, and recently it happened with Mohammed Aamer and Umar Akmal.

So the sight of their Twenty20 team packed with the aging, hulking presences of Mohammed Yousuf, Shoaib Akhtar and Abdul Razzaq was a dispiriting one.

These have been great cricketers in the past, but in Twenty20-as England have shown-the need for athleticism, youthful legs and acceptable fielding is most needed in this game, and this is where Pakistan have been found wanting.

If they want to revive their fortunes in this form of the game then they should jettison the aging players, capable though they maybe, and invest in some younger players.

This is a team which should be built around the explosive talents of Umar Akmal and which should invest faith in players under 30 like Mohammed Hafeez, Fawad Alam and Umar Amin. These players are younger and fitter, more capable of improving over time, and who will eventually be there once the older generation move on.

Senior statesmen like Shahid Afridi and Saaed Ajmal can stay, guiding lights for the younger players, who are still effective performers in T20 cricket and not liabilities in the field.

Furthermore, if the T20 team is used as a conduit to introduce younger players into international cricket, like Pakistan’s recent U19 World Cup finalists, then it can allow younger players to get experience earlier and perhaps equip them better for international cricket.

For too long Pakistan cricket, that mercurial and mysterious wonder, has sought to destroy itself and then revert back to the tried and tested of the past, thus preventing younger players from gaining the necessary exposure to improve.

It is this, more than anything, which has contributed to their dire performances on the pitch this summer.

If Pakistan are looking to rebuild after their tumultuous summer then they could do worse than use T20 cricket, that beacon of hope two years ago, as a path to brighter times after their darkest hour.

Michael Yardy personifies England’s limited over’s approach

Whisper it quietly, but for once England may finally have got themselves a limited overs team which they can be proud of.

Having conquered all in the Caribbean during the World T20 and continuing their good form during the English summer, England’s momentum in the shorter form of the game shows no signs of stopping-as their victory over Pakistan on Sunday showed.

The importance of that victory is relatively minor given that Pakistan have bigger problems to deal with, but achieved without Kevin Pietersen, arguably the team’s biggest gun, it is a notable achievement.

Not that England achieved it without struggling along the way, slumping to 62-5 when Luke Wright moved too far across to a Shahid Afridi straighter ball but thanks to Eoin Morgan and Michael Yardy they managed to make their target of 129 with relative ease.

The importance of this is that it shows the collective strength which is a key part of this England team. When others fail, others step up to the plate.

This is a team who work well together, this is a team which lacks star names-especially given Pietersen’s absence-but which has 11 players who all contribute in all facets of the game. There are no passengers in this team, just players who field superbly and either bat or bowl well-sometimes even both.

No-one personifies this approach more than Yardy, whose 35 not out and 1-21 earned him the man of the match award on Sunday.

On paper Yardy would probably lag behind Sussex team-mate Monty Panesar, Adil Rashid and James Tredwell on the list of England spinners.

But as an experienced performer, Sussex captain indeed, and also a capable batsman and fielder, Yardy offers an all-round package to this team which makes him a vital part of this team.

This variety of abilities which Yardy boasts is very much the personification of his team.

On paper, he is not the most talented of players, but his variety of talent makes him a vital performer for the team, and thus is a crucial part of England’s gameplan in limited overs cricket.

He is but one of a number of players who contribute in all facets of the game, much like Graeme Swann, Tim Bresnan, Stuart Broad and even the captain Paul Collingwood.

It is this which is England’s biggest strength, a collective strength that makes them such a good team in limited overs cricket.

No-one personifies this approach better than Michael Yardy, whose variety as much as his ability make him such a key performer.

Making Sense of England’s One Day and T20 Selections for the Pakistan series

As England’s Test match preparations for the Ashes ended in controversial fashion with the cloud surrounding the Pakistan players, so the final preparations in limited overs cricket begin with a Twenty20 and One Day International series. Their selections for these series have also caused a stir.

The decision to omit Kevin Pietersen-unthinkable two years ago-is the most eye-catching decision, with the batsman issuing a rant bemoaning the decision on his Twitter page. He will now spend the remainder of the season on loan at Surrey honing his game and hoping to recapture some of his form and confidence.

But Pietersen’s omission is not the only eye-catching decision; another is the continued omission of Matt Prior from the limited overs teams, despite his rampant Test match form with Surrey’s Steven Davies named as wicketkeeper in both Twenty20 and ODI squads. While Craig Kieswetter has been forced to concede wicket keeping duties and concentrate on his batting.

Here are the squads in full:

England Twenty20 squad: P Collingwood (c), C Kieswetter, S Davies (wkt), R Bopara, E Morgan, L Wright, T Bresnan, M Yardy, S Broad, G Swann, R Sidebottom, J Anderson.

England one-day international squad: A Strauss (c), S Davies (wkt), J Trott, R Bopara, P Collingwood, E Morgan, L Wright, T Bresnan, M Yardy, S Broad, G Swann, A Shahzad, R Sidebottom, J Anderson.

As the ins and the outs of England’s latest One Day and Twenty20 teams have been announced, here’s looking at the key points of these squads.

Steven Davies – A clear move aimed at building an Ashes squad, beyond the first XI. Davies has been in remarkable form for Surrey since his move from Worcestershire and perhaps represents the best first class/limited overs wicket keeper/batsman. Thus Flower and the England selectors are selecting him to see how he performs at the highest level. Should he succeed, a place on the plane to Australia could well be on the cards.

Ravi Bopara – His form lately has not been that of a man breaking down the door for automatic selection, but with Pietersen’s loss of form Bopara is arguably the next in line as a top order batsmen capable of playing in all forms of the game. Has a chance to impress and show that his game is continuing to improve as he will know it must.

Craig Kieswetter- In for the T20, but out for the ODI, this is a statement about Kieswetter’s current form. Capable of biffing it in the shorter form, which allows him the freedom his game needs to get back on track, but not yet developed enough to be an automatic selection in the 50 over game. Decision to remove gloves is less a statement about his keeping than his batting-overburdening him could do more harm than good.

Jonathan Trott – The opposite of Kieswetter, in for the ODI’s and not for the T20’s. His domestic T20 record deserves consideration but his chances in that form of the game have nosedived following a wretched performance against Pakistan last year which even he admitted he got it horribly wrong.

Only question hanging over his head is can he avoid falling into a go-slow mentality which he has occasionally shown in his so far stellar international career. If he can maintain the pace of his innings during this series a place at number 3 in all forms of the game this winter is not out of the question.

Ajmal Shahzad- Clearly the Yorkshireman’s brand of slingy, swinging, pace bowling is well fancied by the England selectors, but bowlers of his type tend to get hit quite easily in the T20’s. In 50 overs, he could be the star of this series. He’ll be expensive, but he consistently takes wickets with intelligent pace bowling, something which England have lacked in the 50 over game since the departure of Darren Gough.

Kevin Pietersen – The big cahuna of England selection decisions. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this decision is that whereas the batting has for so long relied on Pietersen, not since the World T20, have England relied on Pietersen. His recent form against Bangladesh and Pakistan betray his ring rustiness, and the problems with his game.

To solve this problem England clearly feel Pietersen is best served spending time in the middle in first class cricket. While Pietersen may feel neglected by England after being dropped, he must realise that they are doing this in his best interests and that perhaps some hard yards in lesser climbs are the things he need to refresh and unscramble a game which has become all too cluttered.

At his best Pietersen plays with an uncomplicated freedom, but he needs both confidence and form to do so. Playing for England in this series is no guarantee to restore these two things to his game, playing in County cricket can easily do both. While Pietersen may be feeling unloved by England right now following his omission, in fact England probably feel that some tough love can bring the best out of KP.