Tough at top as door shuts on the new faces

At last, the batting line-up is working well, but Stephen Brenkley fears an important chance has gone begging

Sunday 16 June 2002 00:00

How long ago that Lord's Saturday now seems. Since that lamentable exhibition the England top and middle order have redeemed themselves. This is excellent short- term news and, boy, the bowling attacks of Sri Lanka and India had better watch it for the rest of this summer.

It still leaves the question of the medium term and all the years beyond that. What it really means is: Ask not for whom the Bell tolls, it doesn't toll for thee. At least probably not this season, young fellow-me-lad. Ian Bell, that is, star batting apprentice and the purported future of the English batting, it is beginning to feel, since he was in a romper suit.

The feeling persists that, whatever England achieve in the next few months, the selectors have missed a trick. This sounds fairly mean considering the need for allowing players to establish themselves and the number of runs that are at present spewing forth in such commendable style from the bats of Michael Vaughan, Marcus Trescothick, Graham Thorpe and above all Mark Butcher. But it is important not to ignore how close Bell was to making the starting line-up for the opening Test of the series against Sri Lanka.

The 20-year-old right-hander with the enviable temperament and the solid method was called up as cover on last winter's tour of New Zealand after duly impressing during his sem-ester at the National Academy. When the selectors were debating the balance of the side to play Sri Lanka at Lord's, his name was never far from their lips.

Whether it was actually written down on paper is unknown, but it can be presumed that there was a division of opinion. The day was eventually won by those who decided to give John Crawley another bash at the expense of Mark Ramprakash: one old pro who had never quite made it, or never quite been given a proper run but had always possessed enviable gifts, being replaced with a replica.

In certain quarters it was mooted as a good thing. Bell was said not to be ready for the step-up. He had an iffy start to the season on dodgy pitches. Some of the sages said he needed another year. All tosh, of course. There are no easy Tests (oh, all right, Bangladesh) but Sri Lanka and India with their weaker seam attacks on English pitches come as close as it is possible to get.

Crawley was left out of the side at Edgbaston for the Second Test, where it was felt England needed an extra bowler, and at Old Trafford for the Third because it had worked. But it would be rotten and woefully inconsistent if they were to ditch him for the rest of the summer. So Bell – not to mention Robert Key, the other international Test batsman in waiting – must keep on doing precisely that.

But enough of the carping. After being bowled out for 275 in the first innings of the inter-national summer on a flat deck at headquarters, England's batsmen have responded perfectly. First, they batted out for the draw and displayed consummate professional batting in doing so.

Secondly, they moved on to Edgbaston and, given much the better of the conditions, took full advantage. True, Sri Lanka's seam attack had their traditional weaknesses, true the great Muttiah Muralitharan was at least a fortnight and a match short of full fitness. But England did what they are paid for. Thirdly, they continued on their merry way at Old Trafford.

Butcher has been a rock. A thoughtful and articulate man, he has salvaged his career. It is now about more than the glorious 173 not out he made at Headingley last summer, although that changed things. He was asked on Friday after his fifth Test century if he was still pinching himself.

"Not any more," he said. "I am now expecting to make runs every time I go to the middle in a Test, whereas before I was just hoping. I have really enjoyed batting at No 3, where you adjust to the pace of the game. Opening is more or less doing the same job every time. Last year against Australia I was just happy to be back in the side, now it's the only place I want to bat."

The real triumph may be the first-wicket pairing of Trescothick and Vaughan. It has the look of permanence and is the base on which the rest is constructed. This is bad news, especially, for Key, who is a born opener and whom it may be thought foolish to risk further down the order.

Vaughan was out after a ripping start in Manchester, but the pair look to have many more big ones ahead of them. As Trescothick put it: "It's so important to get that start, to get the ball a bit softer. It makes life so much easier for those coming behind you."

Butcher acknowledges his debt, observing amenably that last year he was up and down in his seat waiting for Glenn McGrath to dismiss Michael Atherton. But, my, how he has helped himself. A year ago his international career had expired. Now here he is, England's most assured batsman, with 1,186 runs at an average of almost 50 since his comeback at Edgbaston 24 innings ago. His latest century was faultless, not full of memorable shots but replete with author-itative ones. He knew what to leave and when to leave it, and his judgement of length was impeccable.

It is to tempt providence to say it, but the England batting line-up is at its most settled for decades. Which maybe does not mean that Australia should watch out.

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