Bell to win battle with Bairstow for middle-order slot
Two batsmen, one place and a dilemma for the selectors. Whatever the conclusion it may be based more on desperate hope than dire experience.
The runs of the contenders to play for England in the third Test against India, which starts on Wednesday, cannot be so much weighed in the reckoning as vainly searched for in the dark. Ian Bell, the returning father, will almost certainly be picked ahead of Jonny Bairstow, the new kid on the block.
Bell, one of England's classiest acts, narrowly deserves to be recalled after leaving the tour to go home to see his newly born son. Bairstow, an undoubted talent with a big future, probably just merits being overlooked. Both adopted a restrained, practical approach yesterday.
But Andy Flower, the England coach, and Alastair Cook, the captain, who will pick the team, are operating on narrow margins. Bell's Test batting average has already gone backwards to 46.84 after a lean year but, if that remains eminently respectable, his figures in India are extremely poor.
In six Tests across three tours of this country, he has made a solitary half-century in 12 innings, in which he has scored 202 runs at 18.36. This is not an appropriate return for a player with his gifts and defies explanation since on his first tour of the subcontinent, to Pakistan seven years ago, he made a hundred in one of the matches and half-centuries in the other two.
Bairstow made only nine in the epic second Test win at Mumbai which levelled the series at 1-1. He was unlucky to be out because replays showed that the ball had rebounded off the helmet being worn by short leg, Gautam Gambhir, before being caught. It should have been signalled a dead ball.
But the shot that led to his departure should not be overlooked, a leg-side push against the turn which resulted in a leading edge. It suggested that his uncertainty against spin bowling still exists. "India is the one place left around the world for me," Bell said after a long net session at Eden Gardens yesterday. "My first tour to Pakistan went really well, I played nice cricket in Sri Lanka. But here I've not gone so well – and it's the same in one-day cricket, too. Maybe sometimes I've tried a bit too hard."
Bell accepts that he is not quite a shoo-in to regain his place in the side. It is not simply his record in India but a surprisingly indifferent year. In 11 Test innings in 2011 he scored 950 runs; in 21 so far in 2012 he has 522.
"[Selection] is out of my control," he said. "I'll work as hard as I possibly can to be ready to play. If I get the nod, that's great. If they want to stay with a winning team, I'll have to take that and keep working as hard as I can to fight my way back."
Fatherhood might have changed his perspective. There is a life beyond the scoring of runs which might, conversely, help to score more of them.
"Maybe I've built a bit too much on myself in the past and now I just want to go out and trust my ability and spend time in the middle and score runs," he said. "But, certainly, now it gives me more of a balance."
If Bairstow is omitted on Wednesday he will have the dubious distinction of being dropped by England three times, although he has played only five Test matches. He was first left out after three unsuccessful outings against West Indies last summer, recalled for one Test against South Africa at Lord's, where he made 95 and 54, but then overlooked for the first Test of this series to accommodate Kevin Pietersen's return and Samit Patel's all-round skills.
Bairstow said: "That's the situation in professional sport, people coming in and out all the time. You've got to be adaptable to each one that's put in front of you."
The last person to be dropped after making so many runs in a Test was actually Kevin Pietersen, who was left out after scoring 149 at Headingley to make way for Bairstow at Lord's last summer because of his dispute with management.
John Crawley was omitted from the side for the first Test in Australia in 1998 after making a hundred against Sri Lanka the previous summer and before that Geoff Boycott was dropped for slow scoring against India in 1967, his 246 not out from 555 balls deemed to have been much too pedestrian.
"It's obviously desperately disappointing," Bairstow said. "But for the sake of the team, what's best for the balance of the side, then it was going to happen. It's something that's been dealt with before, and I'm sure it will be in the future – if that's the case, then so be it." He sounds prepared to be disappointed again.
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