England open to idea of starting with Ian Bell

Bell batted with Moeen Ali during practice at Manuka Oval

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The Independent Online

As England trained in Canberra a hint was dropped about their opening intentions in the World Cup. If it is hardly the last piece in a jigsaw made more difficult to complete by being constantly recut, it is perhaps the most perplexing and significant.

The selectors’ belated dropping of Alastair Cook has prompted it and, 34 days from the start of the tournament, it is hardly the ideal scenario. Not that much about England’s preparations so far has come into that category.

In the squad’s middle practice at the Manuka Oval, Moeen Ali and Ian Bell batted together for 20 minutes. If drills intended to replicate possible situations in matches are to mean anything, this suggests that the pair will open the batting in the first warm-up match tomorrow, against an Australian Capital Territory XI, ahead of the triangular series.

Should it work straightaway, Moeen and Bell will presumably be offered first bash in the triangular series against Australia and India, in which England play their first match next Friday. Beyond that, the World Cup beckons. This would leave no place for Alex Hales, a booming hitter who seems to embody most things about contemporary limited-overs batting.

Moeen and Bell have never opened the batting together before and have only batted together twice for England, once in the Test match at Southampton last year and once in a one-day international in Sri Lanka before Christmas. If it seems to suggest muddled thinking and uncertainty, there is a happy, if not quite exact, precedent which might show that it will be worth turning up for the World Cup after all.

Weeks before the 2010 World Twenty20, England made an astonishing change. They ditched their plans for who was to open on the strength of a match against their own Lions side.

Michael Lumb and Craig Kieswetter’s opening stand of 86 persuaded the management that they should be promoted immediately to the full squad. They duly opened throughout the tournament in the West Indies and England won their one and only global competition. It shows that planning can be done on the hoof and is a continuing process.

When Cook was dropped, realignment was necessary. It was assumed that Moeen and Hales would be asked to open, young guns who know how to blaze away. Hales was given a brief opportunity last summer but Moeen supplanted him on the tour of Sri Lanka.

Bell is now being understandably proposed as the man who would come between them. There is a school of one-day thought that he is yesterday’s man in that format. While he may well become that after this World Cup, if he is serious about prolonging his Test career for another five years (which he undoubtedly is), that point has not yet been reached.

Bell has played 150 one-day internationals, and if he has not quite fulfilled his enormous gifts only four players have appeared more often. As an opener he has a strike rate of 77.88 – not electrifying but far from woeful.

For instance, Ajinkya Rahane will open the batting for India in the World Cup. Last year, India were easily the world’s fastest scorers at 95.31 but Rahane as opener goes along at 79.70, only a little quicker than Bell and on much more conducive pitches for rapid scoring most of the time.

There is scope for balance in the batting order, a point coaches have tried repeatedly to make and been quietly, or not so quietly, scorned. Go with Moeen and Hales and the risk is greater that one or both will go early.

This is conservatism, but it is rooted deep in the English cricketing soul. Hales has had a roughish deal, but if Bell can find his best form he can help to build platforms from which all manner of scores above 300 are possible.

Less than a year ago, England took Bell as part of their squad to the World Twenty20 and allowed him to carry their drinks. It seemed a blatant contradiction, to call up such an experienced batsman and then not to select him. They will not make that mistake this time, and Hales lies in wait for another way, another day.

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