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.

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.