Monday, 19 November 2012

Cook, Bell and how long it takes perceptions to change

Before the tour to the UAE earlier in the year, who was England's best batsman against spin? A lot of people would have said Ian Bell. Yet, where did the perception that Bell was a good player against spin come from? In the same vein where did the perception Cook was a bad one come from?

In Cook's first Test, in India nearly seven years ago, Bell made 9 and 1, getting out pushing forward at Harbhajan Singh in the first innings. Cook made 60 and an unbeaten 104, a century on Test debut. Whilst Cook made few more runs in the series, only playing the first two Tests, missing the third with a stomach bug, Bell only made one fifty in six innings on the tour, averaging 21.83.

That remains his best tour of India and his overall average there after the first Test of this series is 18.36 with one fifty and no hundreds. Given his poor record coming into this series in India, as well as Sri Lanka and the UAE His summer wasn't great either, scoring five fifties in the six Tests, but not making a single one into a hundred, and the bulk of his runs coming against the West Indies. After he goes back home for the birth of his child, there must be a huge question mark over his place in the team when he comes back.

But, back to the relative merits of Cook and Bell against spin, I think Lawrence Booth in the Mail put it best:
“When the pre-series form was doing the rounds – Sunil Gavaskar calls it 'hype', as if we are wrong to feel excited about Test cricket – Cook rarely featured in lists detailing England’s best players of spin. 
While Kevin Pietersen was bestowed with the capacity to take an attack apart, as he did in Colombo, Ian Bell was light on his feet (even if he couldn’t pick the doosra), and Jonathan Trott had shown the way ahead with his century in Galle. Samit Patel had muscled his way into the frame as well.”
Everyone but Cook was given a fair chance against the spinners, and they all failed. Pietersen can be a match winner against spinners, but just as often he gets out to stupid shots against them, Trott seems to prop forward and hope for the best, and Patel's reputation is built on playing Mendis (the Sri Lankan Chris Harris) well in a T20 that was already lost. As for Bell, where did his reputation ever come from?

In his first taste of high quality spin, in the 2005 Ashes, he fell victim to Warne three times in ten innings, and looked very uncomfortable against him. Still, this was the best spinner in the world, early in his career. After that he averaged over fifty in Pakistan, but fell to spin four times in six innings, including criminally Shohaib Malik twice.

So far, so average. Then came his first tour of India and a home series where he thrashed Pakistan for 375 runs in four Tests. Still there was no career defining innings against spin. While his tour of Sri Lanka in 2007 got him 261 runs at 43.50, he succumbed to Murali five times in six innings, the other dismissal a run out.

That was his last tour of the subcontinent - bar one series where he thrashed Bangladesh - until the UAE earlier in the year, and if you look at his whole career in the subcontinent bar Bangladesh, he has an average of 28.43 and only one hundred in 17 matches. So where did his reputation as a good player of spin come from, two decent tours, Pakistan in 05/06 and Sri Lanka in 07, plus butchering poor spinners on English pitches.

That's what he is, a good player of poor and average spin on flat pitches. Of course when he does that he looks inordinately good, unlike Cook who never looks aesthetically pleasing. Cook however has the will to tough it out, and has worked very hard with Graham Gooch to turn what might have been a weakness at one point into a strength.

Compare both their averages in Asia (including Bangladesh this time) and Cook has five centuries and an average of 53.96 and Bell has two and an average of 34.44. Take Bangladesh out of the equation and Cook's average drops to 46.45, whilst Bell's goes down to 28.43. The evidence is there, and the perceptions will change soon too.

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