Ian Bell's timing seductive but England need more than quick fixes
Ian Bell always did have impeccable timing.
About the time England subsided to 86 for 6 he was reaching his fourth Championship century of the season. Moments later, he reached 20,000 first-class runs. A few hours after that, he had a double-century. It was as he were reminding the selectors that he was still available, still hungry and still very good.
At a time when England need quick fixes, Bell's qualities may prove hard to ignore.
He has always been a seductive batsman. You could fall in love with his cover drives in a way you never could with a nudge off the hips from Alastair Cook. Cook may have been reliable, but Bell was your passion. You were more likely to forgive the odd indiscretion - that shot in Ahmedabad or Jamaica - simply because he was so beautiful.
It's not so dissimilar now. While his statistics this season are impressive, they lose just a bit of their sheen once you scratch at the surface of them. Yes, he has scored four Championship centuries. But three of them have come against a modest Glamorgan attack that is rooted to the bottom of the Division Two table. Against other teams in the division, he averages a less eye-catching 34.15. In 2017, when Warwickshire were in Division One, he averaged just 25.91.
He's not really the answer to the question England are asking, either. They need a couple of openers and a No. 3. While Bell did score two Test centuries from No. 3 - including a career-best 235 against India in 2011 - he averaged 38 in the position. That compares to an average of 48.25 at No. 5 and 60.11 at No. 6.
That's not to say recalling Bell would be a mistake. If he really has recaptured the hunger that helped him score 22 Test centuries and nearly 8000 Test runs and if he was willing to bat at No. 3, he would have to be considered a realistic option. He has the technique and temperament - that old-fashioned understanding that you earn the right to play the flash shots after building a base on defence and patience - this England side so desperately require. He's 36 - a year younger than Roger Federer - he could do a job for a year or two.
But it remains a truism of the game that players' reputations often improve for a period out of the England side. And the chasm between the Glamorgan attack (only one of which has a first-class bowling average below 34; a couple of them are over 45) Bell has pulverised and the excellent India attack has to be acknowledged.
The point of this? There aren't quick fixes for the mess in which England finds itself. Recalling Bell - a man moulded in the years before Championship cricket was compromised in the bid for a few dollars more - may provide some temporary succour, but what England really require is a domestic system that properly prepares players for international cricket. A system where spinners and fast bowlers are encouraged and the traditional values of first-class cricket - which include discipline and technical excellence as much as they do flair and athleticism - are nurtured. It's not surprising there are few old-fashioned openers available to England right now: their qualities simply aren't valued in the modern game.
Increasingly you get the impression that the top executives at the ECB regard the County Championship as a barely necessary evil. They probably won't admit it publicly, but you suspect they believe Test cricket is doomed and, in the bid to prepare for its succession, they are hastening its decline. "The power of new" is one of their slogans. It would be nice if they valued the old a little bit more.
But you know this already. Everybody knows this already. If the ECB really cared about the success of their Test team, they would ensure the Championship is played throughout the season and was as strong and vibrant as possible. They would guard it jealously and prioritise it in the schedule. Instead it is compromised and diluted and sacrificed at every turn.
But accepting the system is broken does not allow those in the England set-up to escape scrutiny. The coaches who can demonstrate no improvement from players in their environment cannot just blame the system. The selectors who persist with a man who is clearly out of his depth at this level or play almost an entire batting order out of position cannot just blame the system. The batsman who flashes at wide balls when the ball is darting around cannot just blame the system. The allrounder who keeps losing his wicket slog-sweeping the offspinner cannot just blame the system. The experienced seamers who squander the new ball cannot blame the system. They, too, have to take responsibility for their errors. Performances like this, repeated errors, cannot be accepted if England are to improve.
To be fair to England's batsmen, India's bowling in the first session on Thursday was magnificent. But poor batting often magnifies the skill of the bowler and to see Keaton Jennings - who was dismissed twice at Trent Bridge by deliveries he should have left - leg before leaving one he had to play was to see a mind scrambled and shredded. It was just a little reminiscent of Chris Read's dismissal - ducking a well-disguised slower ball - against Chris Cairns at Lord's in 1999. A fine bit of bowling, for sure, but a moment that exposed the limitations of the batsman.
To most observers, Jennings looked a broken man in Nottingham. The manner in which he missed a couple of chances in the field should have sent warning signs to the selectors. By persisting with him, they have done him no favours. Instead of being allowed to return to county cricket to regain form and confidence, the pressure has built upon him and the magnitude of his potential dropping has grown. He probably has one innings to save his Test career now. Rory Burns, the leading run-scorer in Division One and an opener in the old-fashioned mould, will surely make his debut on his home ground next week.
But it was the dismissals of England's most experienced batsmen that was most disappointing. Cook, having resisted admirably for 90 minutes, lost concentration and guided a ball to third slip as if providing catching practice - as soft a dismissal as any in his career, perhaps - while Joe Root suffered a recurrence of a technical fault that is troubling him too often to be ignored. While Virat Kohli took to using a slightly more open stance that helped him deal with the movement at Trent Bridge, Root remains steadfastly side-on and again found himself overbalancing when confronted by movement here. No change, no improvement, no progress. It is, sad to say, a phrase that is starting to sum up his side. A side that has, remember, won none of its last three series.
This England team is stuffed with talent. It has the ability, on a good day, to deliver some knock-out blows. But its glass chin - its inability to play pace, or swing, or spin or even to concentrate - will prevent it enjoying consistent success. If it is to optimise its talent there has to be change at domestic level and there has to be change in the approach and culture of this side. There have to be consequences for repeated failure or inability to produce tangible results. They cannot go on accepting these performances.
Bell may provide some temporary respite, but it is simplistic to think he offers a solution.