England axe hangs over Bell as Cook gets Graveney's vote

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The injury-induced absence of five leading players has not prevented the likely omission of one of England's Ashes-winning heroes from the first Test against Sri Lanka which starts on Thursday. There were no surprises in the 13-man squad announced yesterday but comments by David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, stating that Alastair Cook would bat at No 3 at Lord's, would have hit Ian Bell like a Lennox Lewis upper-cut.

Bell has had a mixed year as a Test cricketer. He scored a maiden hundred against Bangladesh 12 months ago before struggling in the Ashes. He then reaffirmed his potential before Christmas by averaging more than 50 in the Test series against Pakistan. Bell's form fell away on the recent tour of India but he would have returned home feeling that he would start against Sri Lanka.

That the 24-year-old's place in the team is under threat is not solely down to his inconsistent batting. Cook is an exciting prospect: he scored an assured hundred when opening the batting on his Test debut against India in Nagpur and looks set for a long and successful international career.

The uncertainty surrounding Michael Vaughan's long-term future will have influenced the selectors' views. Vaughan has shown that it is no bad thing to have a specialist opener batting at three, and England must feel that Cook's technique and character are better suited to coping with Australia's bowlers in six months' time than Bell's.

Bell's place in the side now depends on whether England opt to play an extra batsman at Lord's. The selection of Monty Panesar as England's only spinner increases the chance of this happening, but it is to be hoped that they are bold and pick five bowlers ahead of an eighth batsman.

"Alastair Cook enjoyed an excellent start to his Test career in the subcontinent and he will occupy the No 3 position in the order," Graveney said. "We are delighted with Marcus Trescothick's early-season form and he will return to the team in his normal position opening the innings with Andrew Strauss."

Strauss and Trescothick were the only two alternatives to Flintoff when the selectors considered their captain for the match. The fact they opted for Flintoff suggests that Vaughan's knee is showing encouraging signs. Indeed, there is talk that he may play for Yorkshire at Canterbury on Wednesday.

"We will look at Flintoff's position on a Test-match-to-Test-match basis," Graveney said. "It is quite right that people mention Flintoff's workload because he is such an important member of the team and we will assess his situation by having regular conversations with him. But at this stage we believe Andrew is the right man to do the job."

Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, will decide on who plays on Thursday and it will be interesting to see whether the Bell/Cook situation - where one eye is looking towards the winter tour of Australia - applies to the bowling. If this is the case Sajid Mahmood can expect to make his Test debut and Liam Plunkett to play his first international match in England.

Yet should the weather on Thursday morning be overcast and muggy, there will be a strong temptation to play Jon Lewis, who has started the season magnificently. Lewis has taken 19 first-class wickets in two outings, including match figures of 9 for 90 for England A against Sri Lanka last week. His lively medium pace is ideally suited to early-season conditions in England but it is difficult to imagine him causing too many problems in Australia next winter. With the Ashes in mind, Mahmood, Plunkett and Panesar should play at Lord's.

England squad for first Test

A Flintoff (Lancashire, capt) Age 28, Tests 59

M E Trescothick (Somerset) 30, 69

A J Strauss (Middlesex) 29, 24

A N Cook (Essex) 21, 2

K P Pietersen (Hants) 25, 11

P D Collingwood (Durham) 29, 8

G O Jones (Kent, wkt) 29, 26

M S Panesar (Northamptonshire) 24, 3

L E Plunkett (Durham) 21, 2

M J Hoggard (Yorks) 29, 51

S I Mahmood (Lancs) 24, 0

I R Bell (Warwickshire) 24, 14

J Lewis (Gloucs) 30, 0