The choice of Ian Bell to bat at six was England's most contentious selection for the opening Test against South Africa and his double failure did nothing to justify the faith shown in him yet again. His place for the second game of the series, which begins in Durban on Boxing Day, however, appears not to be in doubt after Andy Flower, England's coach, rallied to his defence yesterday.
It is 17 months since Bell last made a Test hundred – his career-best 199 against South Africa – and his form since has been at best patchy. The immediate success of Jonathan Trott has seen Bell lose the No 3 spot and in Centurion he was the immediate beneficiary of Andrew Flintoff's departure.
England as yet have no suitable all-round candidate for the No 6 role. Luke Wright's bowling is not Test class, while Matt Prior has yet to convince that he should come in any higher than seven. Stuart Broad may offer a long-term solution but for the time being the place seems Bell's almost by default.
"Belly got some runs in the pre-tour games, and he's feeling quite confident about the way he's playing," said Flower, mounting the case for the defence. "He's just had a tough Test match. He made a misjudgment in the first innings and then got 'nicked off' in the second. But he's a high-quality player, and we're backing him. He'll be fine."
Bell, in his 50th Test match, made five and two in Centurion; five of his last six Test innings have been cut short in single figures. The other, though, was a half-century worth its weight in gold in the Ashes decider at The Oval. In his favour is that in the less exposed position of No 6 he averages 46.25 compared to a career return of 38.9. But the key to his place at Kingsmead is England's preference once again for six batsmen; there are only six specialists in the squad.
If Flower and captain Andrew Strauss were to change tack and seek an extra bowler – which appears unlikely at this early stage of the series – Ryan Sidebottom is the main contender, although Liam Plunkett has greater pace and is a better bet to eke out some lower order runs.
South Africa, meanwhile, may be spared a selection dilemma of their own as doubt continues to surround the fitness of Dale Steyn, their strike bowler who missed the first Test with a hamstring injury. Steyn will bowl in the Kingsmead nets today after which a decision is expected on whether he is able to last the course of the game. If he fails to prove his fitness, it will mean Graeme Smith and the selectors will not have to choose between Friedel de Wet, who scattered England's middle order in the second innings in Centurion, and Makhaya Ntini. A Steyn return could signal the end of Ntini's 100-Test career.
Players who have plenty to prove
Centurion was his 50th Test and his first-innings dismissal shouldering arms to a straight ball from Paul Harris was embarrassing for a player who still frustrates far more than he thrills. Needs a score in Durban, as he has not recorded a Test hundred since July 2008.
Did well in the warm-ups amid talk of tweaking his technique with Graham Gooch. Then failed twice in Centurion and has now scored just one half-century since the start of the Ashes. The vice-captain's place is safe but his captain Andrew Strauss needs support at the top of the order.
Is he good enough to bat at No 6? Scores of four and nought in the first Test say not. Averages more than 50 at six, compared to an overall figure of 41.56, but scoring runs against West Indies is easier than against Australia and South Africa. His improving keeping is no longer an issue.
With Andrew Flintoff gone the pressure increases on England's great all-round hope. Had a bad game at Centurion although he did dismiss Smith, Kallis and De Villiers. England need him to become a pivotal figure.Reuse content