• South Africa in England 2012

It's been a tough year - Bell

George Dobell
August 12, 2012
Ian Bell has found it tough going against South Africa's disciplined bowling attack © PA Photos

Just as Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay spent many weeks climbing Mount Everest only to remain at the peak for a few minutes, so England's period on top of the world may be fleeting.

You would not have thought so for all the fuss about Kevin Pietersen, but English cricket reached new heights this week. By rising to the top of the ODI rankings, England are just a point away from becoming the first side to be rated No. 1 in Test, T20 and ODI cricket at the same time, with South Africa the only side that stands between them and the top spot in T20 cricket. Whatever the future, whatever the flaws in the rankings system, that is a fine achievement.

But it may well be a short-lived success. As Ian Bell reflected ahead of the final Test in the Investec series against South Africa, England have become a victim of their own tactics of late. Just as England utilised their ambition to attain the No. 1 status as an incentive on the way to defeating India last summer, so they have been victim of South Africa's hunger this year. As a clich├ęd movie advert might put it: hunter has become hunted.

"We worked hard to get to No.1 and it all comes down to this match at Lord's," Bell said. "At The Oval, South Africa didn't let us back into the game and they showed what a quality team they were. They were a bit like we were last summer against India. We were so hungry to get to No. 1 and that feeling of chasing a No. 1 is something that drove us really hard.

"It's been a bit different being the team being chased. It's like it was for India last year. It's a change and it's also changed how people see us.

"We all sat down and Andy Flower was keen to remind us that the hard work was only just starting. It's like getting your first Test cap: you may think you've made it, but there is such a huge journey after that.

"Getting to No.1 was just part of it. We wanted as a group to stay there as long as possible. But we haven't performed. Over the last 12 months we haven't really been in the form of the last three years so it's put us under pressure to stay there.

"That's what Andy Flower and all the other people in management having been pushing the whole team to do. It's a great place to be. To stay at No. 1 in all formats is going to be hard work. We're going to need a squad of players who are fully fit and focussed to stay there.

"You aim to be good all the time. But in cricket we know you can't score runs or take wickets all the time. We've set a really high bar in terms of what we want to achieve but also South Africa have come and played really well. They haven't taken us by surprise, but we just didn't get things right at The Oval.

"We have got to learn lessons if we want to stay at No.1. Or if we want to get that title back if we lose it."

Bell's acceptance that England may lose their No. 1 status may be interpreted as weakness by some, but he insists the England team still believe they can level this series. He feels that, after the mauling England took at the Oval, the momentum changed in Leeds and England can take advantage at Lord's.

"They have had the first bit at the Oval and maybe the first bit at Headingley," Bell said. "But things just started to turn at the end of Headingley and we can hopefully take that momentum into Lord's.

I think they fully know and respect the fact that we can beat them. The three series I have played against South Africa have been really tough and really close and I don't expect this Test to be any different

"We have always believed we can beat any team certainly in England. We know we can beat South Africa. Even speaking to a few of the South Africans, I know that they are fully aware that you don't just take the Oval to Headingley. You have to start again.

"I think they fully know and respect the fact that we can beat them. The three series I have played against South Africa have been really tough and really close and I don't expect this Test to be any different.

"Hopefully the momentum began to shift at Headingley with Stuart Broad's spell. They have a few niggles, too."

South Africa have utilised a similar method to England. They have played the same brand of attritional, disciplined cricket that England used against Australia and India. The difference is, though, that for the first time in several years at home, South Africa look better at that form of cricket than England.

"As an eleven, right the way down, they are a real mature team," Bell said. "There are no real youngsters. They are all established Test cricketers like Australia were in 2006 and 2007. They know their games inside out.

"That's why this series has been good. We have been very much like them. In the past few series we have had only one or two changes.

"South Africa have been very organised. What they have done really well is that at the start of every session they have come in hard with the ball for ten overs, with Steyn, Morkel or whoever they have the luxury of four good seamers, and they have managed to get a wicket early in most sessions which has put us on the back foot.

"They grind you down with the bat," Bell added. "They leave well and they try and bat a long, long time. They try to get bowlers into their third or fourth spell. It doesn't matter how good the bowler is. If they are coming back for a fourth spell they are going to be tired and there are going to be more bad balls.

"We have probably been a little bit outdone in that department. But they do play a patience game with the bat and with the ball they come very aggressively

"At Headingley I was guilty of a really bad shot. We know that when the ball swings there it's a hard place to drive and it was the same at the Oval. There were probably some poor shots in there."

While such errors are a disappointment to Bell, he is also disappointed by the abbreviated nature of this Test series. Repeating a theme echoed by many around the world, Bell expressed his dissatisfaction that such a high-quality series should be such a brief affair.

"It's great for Test cricket," he said, "but it's just a shame it is only a three match series. The standard of this cricket means it should be a five match series. It's a shame that the series will have come and gone so quickly. I don't really like three match series. You lose a bit to the weather or have a draw and it's gone. This should have been a five match series."

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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