For whom the Bell tolls in Durban at Christmas
ENGLAND arrived at their luxurious new base at the Oyster Box Hotel in Umhlanga Rocks ready to make waves in a buoyant dressing room by axing Ian Bell for seamer Ryan Sidebottom.
As the Indian Ocean crashes onto the beach outside in surf sometimes six feet high, the tide of opinion seems to be running firmly against their No6 batsman Bell as the Boxing Day Test 10 miles along the coast at Kingsmead in Durban looms on Saturday.
England held on for a riveting draw in Centurion with Bell shouldering arms to a straight on in the first innings on five and providing little in the way of resistance in the crucial second knock (2 off 17 balls).
Former England paceman Bob Willis said: "I think Bell’s Test career is in danger. The problem with Ian is, he has now played 50 Test matches and he's still not a permanent fixture in that England side.
"He's very quickly going into the sort of Mark Ramprakash column as a guy with all the talent but not the temperament for the big time. I think there's a big question mark against him."
And with Graeme Swann top-scoring with 85 in Centurion at No9 in the order, Sky commentator Willis prefers the five-bowler option, which many argued should have been used at Centurion, where Bell was preferred to Ryan Sidebottom, who took five wickets in the final pre-Test warm-up in East London. He said: "I think the selectors will think they'll need another bowler at Durban. It's very, very humid down there this time of year - and the bowlers looked exhausted at times at Centurion. I do think England will go down the five-bowler route.
“But six batsmen, including Matt Prior, should be able to score enough runs because Stuart Broad and Swann are getting runs down the order and we've seen Jimmy Anderson and Graham Onions are no rabbits with the bat now and Ryan Sidebottom has played some really important Test innings as well.
"We really do need to go with an extra bowler and I think they will make a change. I think they will bring somebody in for Bell. They may experiment with all-rounder Luke Wright; he's obviously a better batsman that Sidebottom but he's pretty unreliable as a bowler and you'd expect him to go for four runs an over.
"They may well go that way to bolster the batting, but my own choice would be to go for Sidebottom."
England will be cheered by the fact South African captain Graeme Smith – who said after the draw “I was a bit surprised with the fist-pumping and stuff like that from England, maybe it was a bit much” – has fallen out of the world’s top 10 batsmen for the first time in 16 months. He managed a duck and 12 in Centurion. Smith is now 11th, but has been replaced by Centurion centurion Jacques Kallis in the top ten. England’s highest ranked batsman is Kevin Pietersen, whose 81 on Sunday moved him up to 13th.
Collingwood is 29th, Jonathan Trott, with just two Tests under his belt, is 49th. In the bowling rankings, Nottinghamshire pair Graeme Swann (11th) and Stuart Broad (13th) feature in their best ever positions for England with Lancashire’s James Anderson slotting in at 12. South Africa’s injured Dale Steyn still heads the list of the world’s top bowlers and but may not be fit for Kingsmead on Saturday.
Steyn said: "I've got until Wednesday to get my hamstring ready. I think we will make an early decision this time on whether I will play, rather than wait until the morning of the game. That puts other players under stress and basically throws the guys into the ocean.
"I'm hopeful. I was very keen to play at Centurion and having a few more days off has given me extra time to get it right, so I don't see any reason why I shouldn't be ready for Boxing Day.
"I just want to make sure it's 100 percent because we have a lot of cricket to play, not just against England but also a tour to India, and hamstrings can be quite a difficult area to sort out. Just when you think you've got it right, it hits you again and slows you down. We are hoping that everything will be right for Durban, that's the goal, and we've been working really hard on it.."