FOR a glimpse of what England hope their post-KP future in the Test arena might look like, it is worth casting a glance back to what happened after he announced he was quitting one-day cricket two summers ago.
Then, in 2012, way before Textgate but already in the depth of his Indian Premier League-driven disaffection with having to play every form of limited-overs international cricket, Pietersen called England’s bluff over their insistence that their players be available for all or none of it and found they weren’t bluffing after all.
Ian Bell had not played a One-Day International since the previous autumn and, when omitted from the squad for the four-match series against Pakistan in the UAE, would have been entitled to conclude his limited-overs career was gone.
But England recalled him for the series against West Indies and, opening with Alastair Cook at The Rose Bowl, he hit 126 off 117 balls and finished a year of batting against them, Australia and South Africa with 549 runs at 54.9. Coach Andy Flower made a point of highlighting the success of Bell in filling the void left by you-know-who.
Bell himself talked of thriving on the extra responsibility. And last year the hits just kept on coming, and not only in ODI cricket, in which he produced 645 runs at 43, including a well-paced 91 against the Aussies at Edgbaston, but also, critically in the context of England’s Ashes victory, with 562 runs in the Test series against Australia at 62.44, with centuries at Trent Bridge, Lord’s and Chester-le-Street.
Even allowing for the hindsight that has made Mystic Megs of so many, the fact that England’s other front-line batsmen managed just two hundreds between them underlined how right it was to be concerned that Bell’s brilliant batting was papering over growing cracks in the fabric of the batting line-up.
Pietersen scored 388 at 38.8, Joe Root 339 (which included his 180 at Lord’s) at 37.66, Jonathan Trott managed 293 at 29.3, Jonny Bairstow 203 at 29, Alastair Cook 277 at 27.7 and Matt Prior 133 at 19. Thus it is reasonable to argue that Bell’s failure to live up to his high standards Down Under (235 at 26.11), was one of the key factors in their defeat, which is not intended to bury him under unfair criticism but to stress that, if he wasn’t already England’s most important and influential batsman, with Pietersen gone for good, he sure is now.
While sympathising with Michael Carberry, who actually fought his box off in the face of Mitchell Johnson’s hostility, the Hampshire opener is probably right to fear for his future, uncertainty hovers over Trott and Root went so far nowhere in Australia that he was left out for the final Test in Sydney, so it is conceivable England’s batting order for the first Test against Sri Lanka will contain only two of the top six that started the Ashes down under – Cook and Bell.
There are plenty of contenders, and, should England decide they want six batters, one of whom can bowl spin, and Ben Stokes at No.7 for now, up to four may be drafted in from the following, in no particular order: Sam Robson, Eoin Morgan, Mo Ali, Gary Ballance, Nick Compton, James Taylor, Bairstow and Ravi Bopara.
Which brings us back to Bell because while all of the above might have what it takes to flourish, with 6,723 runs at 45.43, 20 hundreds and 98 caps, he is the class act around whom the new side must be built. Does Bell have broad enough shoulders to carry the batting until it can find itself, as it must do between now and the start of next summer’s Ashes rematch?
He has done it once before, two summers ago and did it so well that Pietersen wasn’t missed. Granted, that was then and it was One-Day cricket, but, if he pulls it off now, not only will he earn the undying gratitude of the England and Wales Cricket Board, the new England managing director Paul Downton, national selector James Whitaker and whoever the new coach may be, he could finally emerge from Pietersen’s shadow to confirm his place as England’s batsman of the decade.