Bell needs substance to go with the style

<i>D&#233;j&#224; vu</i> all over again as England batsman is guilty of doing half a job in frustrating series
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There is nothing new under the sun. Take Ian Bell, England's most stylish batsman of this winter, a batsman at last shaping his own considerable destiny, a batsman at last tapping gently on the door of greatness. But there he has been in his past three international limited-overs appearances, swinging to leg and missing to be bowled, hitting in the air to cover, and driving off the back foot to point. Scores had accrued of 39 in the second Twenty20 against Australia, 23 in the first one-day international and 32 in the second.

On each occasion, the job was half done: plenty of style, not enough substance. It was Bell as seen too often before for England, a Bell that seemed to have disappeared forever. He may not have been alone but his example has been glaring.

"I've got in twice in this series and not kicked on," Bell said yesterday. "In Hobart on Friday night we started to get a partnership going between me and Jonathan Trott and we really needed that to go on for another 60, 70, 80 runs and then we'd have been in a good position. Even in the Twenty20s we seemed to get a partnership going and then lost a wicket at a crucial time."

So Bell understands what he is doing wrong and recognises that it cannot go on like this with the World Cup barely a month away. Or if it does, England are sunk. He has plenty of company. England's one-day batting unit – as opposed to their Twenty20 order – has been intermittently frail for months. They have won matches and series – indeed they have won five one-day series in succession – but there has been a distinct lack of fluency and they have too often relied on Eoin Morgan to reverse-sweep them out of the mire.

Morgan has had a quiet time of it, at least until he reached Sydney for the third match of seven this morning, and it has showed. To win the World Cup on the subcontinent, England must regularly secure challenging totals by biffing at the top of the order and accumulating in the middle.

In the Ashes, Bell astounded Australian critics who assumed he was simply a soft lad from Birmingham, the so-called Sherminator. He topped off a series of crisply formidable performances with his first hundred against Australia in the final Test. But there has been a sense of déjà vu all over again as the limited-overs stuff has started. He knows that he should not have been dismissed when and how he has.

"No, but I think in one-day cricket I'm trying to hit the ball wide of extra cover for two and hit hard shots along the floor and sometimes I don't get it quite right," he said. "I felt in control in both innings so to get out in soft ways is disappointing, but I'm happy with the way I'm playing and I just need a good score. I need to kick on and make sure my contributions are to us winning a game. The planning is good and I'm trying to hit shots that I've been playing all tour off the back foot. I just got it wrong and didn't execute it right."

Part of the difficulty is that he has been occupying unfamiliar territory at No 5. He has opened 26 times in one-dayers for England, batted at three in another 47, and he is going in at five for the first time now with the most important competition of all at hand. It does not quite smack of the most rigorous planning, and Bell is itching for elevation.

"Of course I relish that role, and if I had my own choice I'd like to bat near the top of the order, but if I have to bat at five then I'll try and adjust my game," he said. "A good strength of mine is I can be flexible, I can start against spin and it doesn't have to be against the new ball. If I have to bat five, I'll keep adjusting my game and keep trying to learn from my mistakesand get better at this position."

Bell had only just reclaimed his place in the one-day side last summer after a long period of omission which led to some soul-searching and practice back at Warwickshire. He then broke his foot in a match against Bangladesh at Bristol, so in a sense he is still finding his way again. But the old faults of getting in and getting out have not been eradicated.

England and Bell are searching for the potent elixir that took them so thrillingly to the World Twenty20 title in the West Indies last May. Although he missed that tournament (still out of favour with the selectors) he seems to think it can and willbe rediscovered.

"The group has developed really well, matured nicely over the last 18 months, started to do well in ICC competitions. That experience of winning T20, I know for me at home watching on TV, it went through the whole of English cricket.

"The fact that they've won an ICC trophy, hopefully that experience of winning something will put us in good stead when we get to the World Cup. In that one, they didn't start amazingly well, but they really found a way of kicking in together at the right time and that's the important thing." It needs to be soon.