Bell in line for Test despite Shah's surge
Fine run of form unlikely to stop Middlesex batsman being the odd man out again
Consider some batting facts. Although this is a process that those selecting the England team seem happy to continue to avoid, as if they were bankers refusing to contemplate the awfulness of their balance sheets, it may matter to their investors, the watching public.
In the first warm-up match of this tour, Owais Shah scored a studious unbeaten century, Ian Bell compiled pleasing innings of 36 and 52 and was dismissed both times offering daft catches. In the one-day series in India at the fag end of last year, Bell made 84 runs in four innings, Shah made 236, more than any other Englishman. In his last 10 Tests, Bell has made 188 runs. Shah has made none simply because he has not played.
Obviously then, the team for the final warm-up match starting here today against West Indies A, should have come as no surprise. Bell will bat at three, Shah will be at six, but is in the team only because Andrew Flintoff's side strain has ruled him out.
The inference is startlingly clear: Bell, despite his poor run, will play in the first Test, starting in Jamaica next Wednesday and possibly the second, third and fourth. Shah, despite his continual good form, will yet again not play if Flintoff is fit, which thankfully has begun to seem likely.
On any logical scale this does not seem fair. Shah has been dragged around by England for the best part of two years as a perpetual reserve batsman. Nobody has quite said to him: "Don't ring us Owais, we'll ring you," but they may as well have done.
He seemed resigned after he made his hundred against the weak St Kitts & Nevis XI earlier this week. "I'm actually not that frustrated anymore," he said. "Maybe 12 months ago I was but I've got past that stage now. I'm quite happy with life. I've just got to live in hope that one day I get a chance." Fat chance.
The elevation to the captaincy of Shah's long-time Middlesex colleague, Andrew Strauss, does not appear to have changed the policy. It is possible to see the selectors' view. They have invested time and emotion in Bell. He was always destined to play for England, always meant to be the golden boy of his generation and so relaxed and consummate does he look at the crease sometimes that the natural inclination is to keep persevering.
But this really cannot go on. Bell, who rarely looks out of form, has done so lately and he keeps getting in only to get out, an awful flaw in any top-level batsman. Of course, if he does repay the investment it will all have been worth it. Flintoff, as ever, will determine the whole balance of the side.
If he plays in the Test, England will bat him at six and have five front-line bowlers. If he does not they will have six batsmen and four bowlers, which may, just, do against West Indies, but could be brutally exposed by Australia in the summer.
Andy Flower, England's assistant coach, said yesterday, that seam bowling places in the Test side are up for grabs. But it seems that Stephen Harmison and James Anderson may be vying for one place, with Ryan Sidebottom a certainty if he has overcome the wear and tear which has afflicted him since last summer.
"Left-arm swing bowlers are very valuable and if he [Sidebottom] can go through a hard game in the next three days and if he's right he will play," Flower said . Stuart Broad is not in the side but is clearly in mind. His attitude and application are faultless but the fact remains that he has taken only 26 wickets in his 10 Tests so far.
Monty Panesar, not so long ago the charming certainty as spinner in the side, is being pushed hard by Graeme Swann. While Panesar improved as the match wore on against St Kitts, the off-spinner Swann has become an impressive, irrepressible figure – and the fact that West Indies have eight left-handed batsmen in their squad of 14 for the first Test may be a consideration. If you did not know better, of course, it would be tempting to suggest that there is one selectorial rule for bowlers and one for batsmen.
England: AJ Strauss, AN Cook, IR Bell, KP Pietersen, PD Collingwood, OA Shah, MJ Prior, GP Swann, RJ Sidebottom, SJ Harmison, JM Anderson.
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