Stephen Brenkley: Ghosts of Hick and Ramprakash are beginning to haunt Bell

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The Independent Online

There are many awkward questions that will vie with seasonal overindulgence to provoke outbreaks of indigestion among England's selectors in the next fortnight. With a squad to go to the West Indies in late January and the Ashes looming (nothing looms quite like the Ashes) they cannot afford to spend long contemplating the dyspepsia.

The big conundrum – the one to match anything that too many Brussels sprouts can throw up, as it were – is what to do with golden boys when they have lost the Midas touch. Ian Bell is the particular case in point. His solitary single yesterday – before the Indian paceman Ishant Sharma propelled one through his gate – continued a run of form which is progressing from worrying to disturbing.

Bell has been part of England's future plans since he was about 12. There was something about him that was so obvious that playing Test cricket was not so much an ambition as a prerogative. So it proved. He went uninhibitedly up the age ranges, played for Warwickshire at 17, for England at 22 and a year later was made an MBE for his part, albeit minor, in reclaiming the Ashes.

Since then, England have been waiting for him to make the big breakthrough. The figures, superficially, are adequate. His Test batting average remains above 40, his one-day average above 35 – figures which players like to think tell a story of proper international competence. Maybe, but 45 and 50 in this era of quick scoring and big totals are more proper benchmarks of class.

The spectres of Graeme Hick and Mark Ramprakash are beginning to haunt Bell. Like them, he seemed to be guaranteed a place in the middle order for a decade; like them he is giving cause for doubt. There are differences. Both Hick and Ramprakash were never fully trusted by England. They both played plenty of Tests (65 and 54), but their appearances were intermittent and the selectors were frequently ready to drop them for failing to live up to huge expectations.

They were always recalled until the next time and, although the fact that they each scored a hundred first-class hundreds (and Ramprakash is still going) is permanent testament to their talents, Test averages of 31 and 27 suggest unfulfilment. Bell has not been treated so cavalierly. The selectors, presumably learning from their predecessors, have persevered. Indeed, they have pointed out from time to time that batsmen tend to do better in the second half of their Test careers. In other words, it takes time to learn the ropes.

However, Bell is 26 and in his 45th Test match. His last 13 scores in the first innings of Test matches have included only two above 50. The 199 he made at Lord's against South Africa last summer should have been the turning point.

But he still contrives to look less like a world-class batsman when he goes to the wicket than a wolf cub about to sing the pack mantra ("I'm a wolf cub, I'm a wolf cub, I'm a wolf cub yes I am and I'd rather be a wolf cub than I'd be a pot of jam" for those who have forgotten). This is demonstrated in his play.

He knows it to be a problem and has worked on techniques whereby he can be assertive. He has put his shoulders back and his chest out, he has chewed gum, he has sported three-day-old whiskers, and he still looks like a wolf cub. Bowlers, particularly men who know their business like Zaheer Khan and Sharma, sense this.

While Bell has been a fixture in the side, he has not been a fixture in the batting order. He has been shunted this way and that. But when Michael Vaughan withdrew last summer he was promoted to the No 3 position again, the flagship berth for which he was born. Scores of 24, 4, 17, 7 and 1 have followed and now, for the first time in a long time, he looks out of touch.

The responsibility of three may be too much. He was at his finest as an England player in 2006 when he was placed at No 6. He responded to this mild reproach by scoring three hundreds against a proficient Pakistan side.

Bell has got it. But this cannot go on as it is. Compare him with Kevin Pietersen, the pair having started their Test careers more or less together. This is probably unfair because Pietersen is carved from different stuff. Where to go from here is difficult. But Bell is coming to embody England as the ultimate closed shop and a second-innings hundred in Mohali will not necessarily keep the door shut for others to break through. The Ashes loom.

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