Can the odd couple find form together?

For years, Pietersen has been confident and dangerous, while Bell has struggled. Now the tables have turned – but their combined potential is an awesome prospect

Saturday 09 January 2010 01:00

For two men on this epic tour of South Africa, life has suddenly taken a different path.

Ian Bell came with a career to save and has achieved it with a style and a substance that many witnesses thought were beyond him. He is a batsman transformed. Kevin Pietersen arrived with designs on recreating his legend in the land of his birth and has so far floundered in a way that is alien to him and those who have watched his illustrious rise. He is a batsman in agony.

Margins are slender in Test cricket. Bell has not had an unalloyed triumph in the series, Pietersen has not suffered a disaster. Pietersen contributed significantly in the drawn first Test, a man reclaiming his rightful place on the mountain top. Bell was all at sea despite being in the highveld.

But it was Bell's classical hundred which helped England to win the second Test in Durban, it was Bell's resolute 78 – in tandem course as ever with the unsung heroes' unsung hero, Paul Collingwood – which helped them to save it and keep their 1-0 lead in Cape Town in a desperately thrilling climax on Thursday evening. On both occasions, Pietersen, the most formidable England batsman of his generation, was nowhere to be seen, out on three occasions across the two matches well before his time had come. This is not the way it was meant to be.

The two-part question is simple but telling: has this series been the making of Ian Bell and the undoing of Kevin Pietersen? Ideally, for England the answer to the first part is that it has seen a richly gifted batsman reach maturity by recognising that Test runs can not be scored regularly by talent alone but that some extra element is needed wherein a man is at ease with himself at last.

In England's perfect world, the answer to the second part is that a singularly talented player is merely going through a lean patch provoked by several external factors, none of them insurmountable. Andy Flower, England's coach, having expressed both his relief and pride yesterday at escaping from Newlands with the draw that keeps his team's noses in front, addressed the issue of the odd couple who could be the key components of England's middle order for the next seven or so years.

"It was a significant innings from Bell, especially backing up the one in Durban," said Flower. "They both contributed to changing the momentum of the game. And he's been accused of not doing that often enough in his career. So he's done it twice now. In different circumstances to this one in Durban he played the situation well, I thought. He adjusted the way he played, this time in Cape Town, and that sort of determination and fight is the way he should always play."

Bell's main fault before he was dropped after a horrendous Test in Jamaica last year was perhaps that he thought he was in the side to stay. It was not that he stopped working or caring but just that he thought it could not be taken away. It was and Flower, aiming to see that it does not happen again, issued a gentle reminder.

"His contribution with that 70 at The Oval in that last Test against Australia was huge," said Flower. "He's put in a lot of hard work, a lot of hard physical work. But the early mornings, the two to three training sessions a day this sort of stuff, all contributes to becoming a tougher competitor. And obviously we reap the benefits as a team.

"But we're looking for him to make consistent and medium- to long-term contributions and not just nip in with a couple. These have been fine contributions but we're looking for a lot more from him. England invested a lot with Ian Bell and this is some of him paying England back."

It is as well he is doing this now while his colleague is suffering so. It is not that Pietersen has been getting out, it is the manner in which he has done so. Even when he was helping to save the first Test by batting for more than three hours, he ran himself out with a crazy call. In the Cape Town Test he came out on the penultimate evening with all to play for and having survived one palpably inaccurate lbw shout thanks to the umpire review system (which undoubtedly came into its own) he was then out pushing across the line.

He was clearly angry. By yesterday Pietersen had relaxed. He was his usual courteous self outside the team hotel in Cape Town, sporting a pair of fancy shorts given as a Christmas present. He has a lot to contemplate. There is still perhaps the residual issue of the captaincy of which he was deprived a year ago and his wife, Jessica, is expecting their first child. Well, while people do not lose their England captaincy every day, wives have children all the time, it is said. True, and maybe their husbands are affected in small but telling ways by what lies ahead as well.

England need Pietersen as their destroyer of attacks in chief. Still averaging 49 as a Test batsman he can move proceedings on so quickly with verve beyond even the scope of Bell. There is just a hint that the aura and the ego are not what they were.

Flower said: "I think KP's always played in a very confident manner and in this series he made a significant contribution in Centurion and has then had a couple of very quiet Test matches and perhaps isn't feeling as confident as he always has. When I see him playing in the nets, technically he is fine.

''I think his Achilles injury and time out of the game is a factor, the fact that he is so used to playing cricket all the time and then had this big break. I'm not worried about Kevin, he is a strong enough person and definitely a good enough player to come through it and I'd be surprised if he didn't contribute at the Wanderers." Together Bell and Pietersen – oh, and Collingwood – could form a significant middle order. A middle order forged in the Noughties but made for the Teenies.

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