So, three weeks of sparring and they are level on points going into the final two rounds. The coaches will be in their respective corners towelling down their men. They will be encouraging them and inspiring them and making one or two strategic recommendations. They will be pointing out the opponents’ weak points and underlining their man’s strengths.
Teams always claim they largely concentrate on their own game and ‘don’t focus much on the opposition’ but of course they’re lying. England will be keenly aware that Australia have a fragile opening partnership, an injured captain well past his best, a vice-captain who is jerkily aware of his fallibility against the short ball, an iffy number six and no decent spinner. There are plenty of reasons to believe that England are still the better side.
Fundamentally however, England must play to their strengths. Most obviously that means rejigging the batting order. Moving Paul Collingwood down to number six is not so much an admission of his failings (nine scores under 12 in his last 11 innings) as an acknowledgement of Ian Bell’s class.
Bell’s sublime strokeplay and certainty at the crease proclaim a man in complete control of his method and destiny. There is nothing half-hearted or uncertain about Bell any more. He walks to the middle like a man who expects to make runs, who believes he has the ability to command the situation. He has the demeanour which says you will have to produce an exceptional delivery to get rid of me and anything less than good will be dispatched with the minimum of fuss.
Every time he has come to the wicket recently he has announced himself with a stroke of real authority. A back foot force, a cut, or in the Perth Test a stride out to meet a lively Harris delivery slightly on the up with the broadest of bats and the cleanest of strikes, drilling the ball between the bowler and mid-off with sumptuous intent. His shots make even the most fair dinkum Australian purr with pleasure.
Already in this series Bell has acquired the nickname ‘shepherd’ – watching after his sheep, namely the tail. He has consistently threatened to run out of partners, getting himself out chasing quick runs because he knows the end is night. It is a terrible waste.
The best place for him would be number four. But it won’t happen, because Kevin Pietersen would take the news of being moved to number five (and the observations from the Australians) badly. So number five it will be for Bell at Melbourne, with Collingwood at six. I would stake a decent sum on this, as the signs are palpably obvious that that’s what England must do.
It might just reinvigorate Collingwood too, rediscovering the improvisation and versatility that got him in the England set-up in the first place to marshal the lower order. It’s what his hero Steve Waugh used to do. And it would enable Bell to have the opportunity to make the Ashes century that could administer the knock-out punch in this series.