Alastair Cook touches down in South Africa on Friday with the sense his England side have a good chance to overturn the world’s No1 Test team in their own backyard despite leaving one of their most experienced batsman back at home.
Ian Bell missed out on England’s 16-man touring party following a slump in form during which he was out for one or nought a troubling nine times this year, making his continuation, in the eyes of the selectors, no longer sustainable even when factoring in his 118 Test caps of experience.
Cook sat in on the selection meeting but is convinced his now former team-mate will return to the fold refreshed, having felt the benefits of a break himself after averaging 59 in Test cricket since being dropped from the World Cup squad at the start of the year.
“A year ago I was left out and I know how disappointing and gutting it was,” said Cook at the team’s departure press conference. “But that couple of months away from the firing line, away from cricket at home, gave me a good understanding and a new lease of life. Hopefully that can be the same for Ian.
“It was fairly long [selection] meeting when talking about a player of his class and experience. You’ll miss his experience but he’ll be the first to admit he’s not scored the runs he’d have liked to. But sometimes missing a tour, with time, might do Ian the world of good.
“I spoke to him and it was an interesting phone call. All I got from it was how desperate he wants to come back. It’s a great encouragement for a player of his class, who has done so much over a long period, that he’s still hungry at 33 to come back to prove to everyone again what a great player he is.”
In Bell’s absence, and with Moeen Ali set to move back down the order following his experimental role as opener in the 2-0 series defeat to Pakistan, England will have two new faces in the top three, with the uncapped Alex Hales and Nick Compton the favourites to come in.
In Cook and Compton’s nine Tests together in 2012 and 2013 they averaged 57 runs for the first wicket – the highest by an English opening pair in the past 53 years. But the captain admitted Hales is considered next in line to walk out alongside him come the first Test in Durban on Boxing Day.
Compton could slot in at No3, where he batted for Middlesex last season, although the return of Yorkshire’s Gary Ballance, who averages 47 in Test cricket, gives England options. With two warm-up matches against different South African Invitation XIs in Potchefstroom and Pietermaritzburg first, Cook says spots will be grabbed through performance.
“We haven’t quite got a settled top seven. There is no doubt about that and it is causing us to play catch-up. With Gary and Nick coming back there’s a real opportunity for people to stake their claim, alongside Alex Hales. It’s an opportunity for people to put their hands up and make a name for themselves.
While England lost to Pakistan in their previous Test series, Cook looks back on it as a chance to secure a rare away victory missed. South Africa have returned home after a 3-0 defeat in India and, in announcing their squad for the first two Tests, will now press their best batsman, AB de Villiers, back into wicketkeeping duties in a bid to deepen their batting.
“South Africa’s result in India we can’t read too much into; we’re seeing at the moment how hard it is to win away from home. I haven’t played South Africa a huge amount and they’ve had a bit of change.
“When you lose the greats of the game – Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, Makhaya Ntini, Mark Boucher – there’s always going to be evolution in the side, and trying to replace them is nigh on impossible. They’re certainly a different side from what I’ve played against.
“There’s something inside of me that says we had an opportunity [against Pakistan] that we didn’t quite take; I wonder if this is an opportunity we can.”
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