By Phil Jones
IAN Bell is not the answer to England’s top-order woes – according to his former teammate and Ashes winner Matt Prior.
The first Test of the summer is less than a fortnight away and yet, with as many as three batting spots in the order potentially up for grabs, debate is raging around the grounds at the start of the County Championship.
Nick Compton and Alex Hales have not nailed down their positions in the top three while the tragically premature retirement of James Taylor last month could have opened up a middle-order role.
Bell – who played in five Ashes series wins and has 118 Tests to his name – was dropped for England’s tour to South Africa last year but has started the summer well for Warwickshire with 174 against Hampshire and a 59 against Yorkshire.
But with younger names – most prominently that of James Vince – staking a claim and a batting order that could be packed with all-rounders like Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali, Bell is far from guaranteed re-selection.
And Prior believes re-calling Bell, 34, would be a backward step for English cricket.
He said: “There are a number of routes you can go. Ian Bell is still around, of course, and scoring a heap of runs in county cricket, he is a fantastic cricketer.
“I hope personally that they go with a younger player who can keep that momentum going forward.
“But it has to be a selection on who is scoring runs, who is performing best.
“It is a big summer coming up and English cricket, after going through quite a horrid time, has gained a lot of momentum through good performances in Test cricket, but also in the ODIs and the t20 World Cup.
“It is now important that we keep that momentum going into this summer.
“It is really pleasing to see people scoring runs early in the season. Too often you see people scoring 60s and 70s and expecting to get selected for England, whereas the reality is being expected to be able to bat for six or seven hours.
“Guys scoring not just hundreds but daddy-hundreds as Graham Gooch always used to say. Going onto those 150s and 200 marks – I think that is a true testament of players who are going to survive at the higher level of the game.
“Seeing guys getting stuck in and getting big scores is very good to see.”
One position that does not appear up for debate is that of wicketkeeper at long last, Bairstow appearing to have staked a considerable claim to the role as permanent successor to Prior.
Jos Buttler, meanwhile, is honing his white-ball skills at the IPL and Prior now believes a position of weakness has become one of strength.
“I just think it is very healthy for English cricket to have two hugely talented batsmen/wicketkeepers fighting for one position – that has got to be a good thing,” added Prior, who won 79 caps for his country.
“Jonny’s batting was outstanding in South Africa and he proved that he can score hundreds batting at seven, which is vital for any wicketkeeper now in Test cricket. He’s a very hard worker, he wants to improve. There are a couple of areas with his keeping, I’m sure he’d admit, that he needs to improve but I have no doubt he is working hard on them now.
“And as for Jos, at the moment the IPL is where it’s at, it was a decision he made and he was supported by the ECB in that decision as well, so that is what he is doing.
“Of course, he will want to be pushing hard to get back into the Test team, and for him to do that he is going to have to be working hard on his keeping and keeping wicket in Championship cricket, but I think there is time for that.
“I think, more importantly, is that it wasn’t his keeping that was the issue. I think his keeping has gone from strength to strength, it was just finding a process, method and a rhythm with his batting that would work in the Test form of the game.
“So that is something I think he will want to focus on but Jonny is the man with the gloves at the minute and he has started the season brilliantly with a big hundred.”
This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, Friday May 6 2016