Ian Bell is favourite to fill Kevin Pietersen's slot in the England batting order should he lose the race to be fit for the third Ashes Test.
Bell poised for a big test
LONDON// With doubts surrounding the fitness of Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell will be dusting down his England attire in preparation for the relaunch of his stuttering international career. Having been picked as the reserve batsman for the last two Ashes Test matches, Bell is the next cab off the rank should the medical experts decide Pietersen needs to be rested to avoid the dreaded possibility of rupturing his troubled Achilles.
"He's been struggling quite badly for quite a period of time," admitted team director Andy Flower. "He's got a couple of people he's going to be talking to and then the experts will make a decision on whether he's OK or not." Flower has already admitted the team will not make any concessions over the fitness of Andrew Flintoff and the same will apply to Pietersen. With the series so delicately poised, Flower will not want to carry any passengers at Edgbaston. Ricky Pointing is already at boiling point over a few contentious issues, and the Australian captain could blow his lid if England continue to use substitute fielders as regularly as they did at Lord's to enable their two highest-profile players to undergo running repairs.
Bell is currently playing for Warwickshire, ironically against Pietersen's county, Hampshire, and will be looking to continue his fine form this summer. But then Bell always has taken county attacks apart - it has been transferring that confidence and ability to the international stage that has been the stumbling block. Bell has not played for England since the first Test match of the recent tour of the West Indies and will be understandably nervous, but it is difficult to imagine better circumstances for him being welcomed back into the fold.
The team is on cloud nine - probably higher depending on how long Andrew Flintoff decided the post-match celebrations should go on for - following their heroic, historic and uplifting victory at Lord's. And, if that is not enough to make sure Bell's return to the dressing room is a seamless one, the next Test is at Edgbaston, his home ground and the venue where he has carved out most of his 25 first-class centuries.
Bell, who has always cut a nervous figure in the Test arena, will be understandably anxious about filling the shoes of a player who averages nearly 50 and has scored more than 4,600 Test runs - but Pietersen is not as crucial to England's success as was thought or as he would like to think he is. England are 1-0 up in the most treasured series of them all, and their star batsman has yet to make a significant contribution.
The absence of the South African-born Pietersen would prompt a reshuffle in the batting line-up. Bell bats at three for his county, and it would make sense to slot him in the crucial spot behind the increasingly productive opening partnership of Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook. That would mean Ravi Bopara, who has struggled so far during this series, moving down the order to No 4, where his strokeplay is probably better suited.
For many experts, Bell, when he's in full flow, is the most aesthetically pleasing of England's batsmen - including Pietersen - and there will be many willing him to succeed should he be handed another chance. Dayle Hadlee, the New Zealander who is one of the head coaches at Dubai Sports City, once described Bell as the best 16-year-old he had ever laid eyes on. Now 27, it is time Bell started to fulfil his huge potential... and what better place to do it than against the No 1 ranked side in the world and on his home patch?