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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Why Ian Bell can solve England's batting woes against India

The veteran of 118 Tests is in great form with a middle order spot potentially up for grabs

Ian Bell pictured batting against Sri Lanka in 2014. Getty Images

It was just a few days ago that the name Alan Wells sprung up in a cricketing conversation in these parts.

It's a name many cricket fans under the age of 30 won't remember, but for those above that age bracket, they may recall the occasion when he was selected to play for England in a Test series against the West Indies in August 1995.

Wells was 34 at the time and had made a name for himself as a solid batsman for Sussex. Curtly Ambrose dismissed him for a golden duck in the first innings, but he was more successful in his second knock - digging in for three not out off 39 deliveries for what would be the start, and end of his Test career.

What were England doing picking a 34-year-old batsman you may wonder? Well, this was the 1990s, a time when viewers on terrestrial television were forced to miss chunks of play so the horse racing at places such as Doncaster could be shown. When the screen returned half an hour later to the Oval, or Lord's, you would often find four or five England wickets had fallen and sometimes they had even gone from batting to bowling in the time it took Desert Orchid to trot the final few furlongs.

The middle order was notoriously flimsy, and so Wells, among many others, was given his chance despite being in the twilight of his career.

Fast forward a few decades and you can't accuse England under Trevor Bayliss of failing to look to the future and giving youth a chance.

Twenty-year-old batsman Ollie Pope has been entrusted with the No 4 slot, while before him all-rounder Sam Curran was given his Test cap a few days shy of his 20th birthday. This was after spinner Dominic Bess made his debut at 20 and Mason Crane (will we ever see him again?) also debuting at 20. Of that quartet, only Curran has made a meaningful contribution.

And now England find themselves in a familiar position of what to do with their batting line up after being trounced by India at Trent Bridge.

The situation isn't desperate - they are 2-1 up in the series. But Jonny Bairstow broke a finger and is a doubt for the fourth Test at Southampton starting August 30. The tyro Pope scored just 16 and 10 following 28 on his debut. Opener Keaton Jennings is averaging just 23 in Tests and Alastair Cook, the glue which has so often held England together, appears to be slowly coming unstuck. Cook is reported to be a doubt for the fourth Test too as his wife is expected to give birth around that time.

So what do England do? Delve into the young hopefuls in the domestic game? Recall the tried-and-failed such as James Vince or Dawid Malan?

The most likely scenario is a recall for Moeen Ali after he scored 219 for Worcestershire against Yorkshire this week and spun his way to 6-49. But how about a different direction, namely towards Edgbaston, where 36-year-old Ian Bell has been in splendid form for Warwickshire this season.

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There would be no questions as to his suitability to Test cricket - Bell has already made 118 appearances, the last of which came against Pakistan in the UAE in 2015. He has 7,727 Test runs in his locker at an average of 42 with 22 centuries - the kind of statistics which all of those tried by England over the past two years will only ever be able to dream of.

Bell himself has admitted he still has the hunger. "The questions have started to come a little bit more now, with the form I've had through the season and obviously England's middle order," he told the BBC earlier this month.

"If you asked me that question now I would definitely want to play again. If you'd asked me that 12 months ago, it would have been a different answer."

If age is a barrier then James Anderson is the man breaking it down as he continues to perform at 36. And Bell has the backing of a number of his former teammates including Kevin Pietersen, who said on Twitter that England's younger batsmen need senior players to show them the way.

There is no doubt that the likes of Pope and Curran are the future of English cricket. But in the here and now England have a series against India to win and need to pick a team which will be victorious in the present rather than one which may fare well against Australia in the Ashes next summer.

Just don't look to Alan Wells as a cautionary tale for picking players in their mid-30s.

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