Paul Wood | 12:40pm gmt 03 Jul 2008
Once again we find ourselves debating whether now is the right time to tamper with England's top six in the Test batting line-up. In such situations the old adage of form being temporary and class permanent rings very true.
Passing what is considered a benchmark first innings score of 400 only three times since the start of 2007 (17 Test matches) does not make a particularly strong case for continuing with the current batch of middle order players. The lack of big team scores has cost England dear in recent series' losses against India and Sri Lanka.
Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood appear to be the batsmen whose recent run of average form may well cost them if their form does not improve quickly, and should they get another chance, then they will need to contend with a re-born South African side that can boast dangerous quick bowlers such as Dale Steyn, Makhaya Ntini and Morne Morkel.
But would it surprise anyone if both these players flourished under such pressure. Collingwood has made a career out of proving people wrong, turning potentially fatal situations into match winning ones. He may not possess the most stylish technique, but it has generally been an effective one since he has become a regular in the England Test side. Every side desires such a dogged fighter in their ranks, who doesn't mind scrapping hard for runs and will never shy away from a tough challenge.
Bell on the other hand was having to play a knock in Napier that may decide his short-term international future, as the pressure intensified surrounding his position in the side from certain sections of the media. The result was a free flowing, typically elegant century, albeit in favourable conditions, but here he cashed in and ensured a good start was backed up by a three figure score. It should take a remarkably poor run of form to discard Bell back to the grind of county cricket.
His weakness recently has been converting promising scores into match defining centuries, although after Ricky Ponting's first 39 Test matches he had the same number of centuries as Bell does at the same stage, seven. At only 26, Bell has an abundance of time to mature, learn exactly when to attack, when to grind it out, and go on to make the big hundreds.
Kevin Pietersen is one player whose recent conversion of hundreds is exceptionally high, especially in the past 18 months, when he has passed the half century mark seven times and on six of those occasions he has made a century. A lesson for both players in order to cement their places for some time yet.
If Andrew Strauss has enjoyed a revitalised period in England colours, then Alistair Cook is perhaps enduring his first minor blip at the top of the order. At the age of 23, this is no surprise, nor with his temperament and pure hunger for big runs will it be for long.
That just leaves the skipper, Michael Vaughan, whose magnificent stroke play always leaves the spectators disappointed when he is dismissed. He is an influential leader who appears to have rediscovered his propensity to pierce the off side field with sumptuous cover drives. Should be an automatic selection while he remains fit.
In the reserves, both Ravi Bopara and Owais Shah are continuing to push hard for a starting place in the Test side and such quality of competition can only be a good thing for English cricket, and they should help push the current side on to greater things this summer.
It has been a tough last 18 months or so for England as a batting unit with a number of their players having to battle through losses of form and all at a similar time, but they have enjoyed their moments. Smashing a weak under prepared West Indies around back in May 2007 when Cook, Collingwood and Bell of the current side all made centuries, Vaughan and Pietersen chipping in with big scores of their own later in the series. A focused second innings at the Oval against India, albeit not being enough to force the win that was required. A steady all-round batting performance in Galle against Sri Lanka and of course the recent successful run chase against New Zealand at Old Trafford, where they chased down 294.
The England national selector Geoff Miller suggested Bell and Collingwood are not under threat and we can only hope that Miller is true to his word and they are given first shot at South Africa to help England rediscover the knack of scoring imposing first innings totals that they will undoubtedly need.