Test cricket may be a game of grace, guile and gentility, but it applies brutally the laws of natural selection. Witnessing the harassment and merciful despatch of Ian Bell had the morbid fascination of watching a pack of hyenas bringing down their prey by eating it alive, mouthful by bloody mouthful.
There is something endearingly inoffensive about the veteran batsman. In a world of silverback gorillas he has an antelope’s vulnerability. Over the course of 57 minutes on Saturday, he took increasingly desperate evasive action without throwing hunters off the scent.
He was hit on the arm, dropped from one of a series of chances he offered involuntarily, and even survived a TV review. Finally, when he had eked out 13 runs, Mitchell Marsh applied the coup de grace, fashioning a ball which bounced, left him, and connected with his right glove.
Michael Clarke, who, weather permitting, will surely take a measure of consolation into retirement by overseeing an Australian victory in the dead rubber of a schizophrenic Ashes series, remains too fine a slip fielder to spill such a simple catch.
England, largely through the characteristic discipline and defiance of their captain, Alastair Cook, marginally restored their reputation after Friday’s follies, but they have batted with intermittent naivety, recklessness and stupidity this summer.
Walking around the concourses, which featured blown-up images of triumphant moments from England’s series win, was a strangely disjointed exercise, since Australia have dominated this Test from the start.
Perspective is, of course, required. To echo the plaintive cry of a home-made banner that hung from the window of a flat overlooking the ground: “Calm Down. We’ve Won.” Though the ritual of being officially presented with the Ashes trophy and replica urn will feel incongruous when it is enacted at the end of this game, celebrations are merited.
Harsh questions will demand convincing answers soon enough. Is Bell worthy of retention at No 3? Who will benefit from Adam Lyth’s manifest inability to transfer assurance and application from county cricket to the international arena?
Bell is 33, a conduit of experience accumulated over 114 Tests in 11 years. He is technically correct in a transitional era, where younger players utilise instincts and muscle memories set in the more-rumbustious environment of T20 cricket.
Cook, who richly deserved an elusive Ashes century on Saturday, embodies old-fashioned virtues such as sustained concentration and constructive patience. His strength of character and sureness of technique have been among the few reliable factors in a series defined by mental lapses and sudden mood swings.
Bell’s adherence to the coaching manual means he is not as reliant on his hand-eye co-ordination as other more unorthodox batsmen, yet faults and foibles are beginning to appear with greater frequency.
He might have responded positively to the challenge of being pushed up the order to compensate for the failings of Garry Balance, but it is a huge leap of faith to imagine him still being a viable option when the Ashes are next contested, starting at Brisbane in November 2017.
You suspect Cook, though, will want to keep him close for as long as possible. As he reflected in the aftermath of Bell’s pivotal contribution to the Test win at Edgbaston last month, “You have to keep backing the right horse and he’s the right horse.”
The same cannot be said for Lyth, whose wretched series, in which he has accumulated 115 runs at an average of 12.77, ended appropriately when he was caught by Clarke at second slip after scoring 10. He knew his fate, since, engulfed by sudden silence, he closed his eyes in a mute gesture of resignation.
He turned slowly and began to trudge at funereal pace towards the pavilion, and out of Test cricket. His diligence – he was one of the first to arrive at the ground and spent a solitary spell in the middle before play, visualising what he intended to do when his final chance came – will count for nothing.
Failure invites scorn, invokes a messy inquest. It was probably as well Lyth was unaware he had been lampooned in an Australian tabloid as the worst player to win the Ashes. He was hit on the right hand by Mitchell Johnson in the first over of England’s second innings and bullied towards the exit.
He was unfortunate in not being able to acclimatise to the role in the spring tour of the West Indies, when England prioritised their duty of care to Jonathan Trott. He was the highest scoring batsman in the County Championship last season without suggesting such a status has wider relevance.
The essence of team building, however, is the identification of a struggler’s successor. Conventional wisdom, which demands Moeen Ali be given the chance to partner Cook against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates, ignores the inconvenient truth he has never opened in his first-class career.
Bell will be there, despite the doubts. Bigger beasts will stalk him in the subsequent tour of South Africa, when the mettle of this England team will be determined, once and for all.Reuse content