Bell's form and demeanour has resembled 2005, when he was dominated by Shane Warne
If they fail to win the second and final Test of the series against Sri Lanka next week, they will cede their position to the rampant South Africans, who tour England in the second part of the summer.
The performance in Galle was typical of the winter England have had in this form of the game. Excellent bowling was undermined by some at times woeful batting, with England passing 300 on just one occasion in eight innings so far. The second innings performance in this match was by no means the worst of the winter, but it was error-strewn enough to suggest that this England side are in decline.
Ian Bell’s first innings half century was a welcome return to some sort of form, having endured the most torrid time against Saeed Ajmal in the UAE. England fans can only hope that this is the start of another upward trend akin to 2011, when he averaged over 100, rather than a peak among a terminal trough.
Bell is the personification of England’s long term problems in playing spin in the sub-continent. A lack of a game plan, timid in defence and unsure in attack, the Warwickshire batsman regresses to his former ‘Shermanator’ identity, as Shane Warne unkindly christened him, as soon as a spinner of any sort of quality comes on to bowl. How he has gone from arguably the most in-form player in the world eight months ago to this is anyone’s guess.
Of the other batsmen, it would appear to be only captain Andrew Strauss who is under pressure. Jonathan Trott scored a brilliant century in the second innings, while it seems that Alastair Cook has got enough runs in stock to take him through to retirement, such has been his form in the last two years. Kevin Pietersen has had a lean winter in white clothing, but his form in the 50 and 20 over forms of the game was a reminder of him at his very best.
So Strauss, the man who led England so expertly in capturing the giant mace that signified their ascent to the top of the rankings, is suddenly the subject of scrutiny for his place. He has now gone some 24 innings without a Test match century, his last three figure score coming at Brisbane in November 2010.
The skipper has five half centuries in that time, and has made it past to double figures on 17 occasions during the lean spell, suggesting that his form is far from chronic, but England need their leader to make big hundreds and dictate an innings, not make 20 or 30 pretty runs and give it away, as was the case yesterday.
Any calls for Strauss to lose his place are hugely reactive. Yes his run of form is not ideal, and the fact that England are losing games rather than winning them further spotlights his personal failings, but to remove him now would cause far more harm than good. His Ashes record means that he must be in charge for the visit of Australia next summer at the very least.
And so we go to Colombo, with England battling to save the crown that they fought so hard to earn. Over the last four years, this England side have displayed guts and brilliance that has not been seen by cricket fans in this country for more than a generation. They haven’t become a bad side in the last four months, but they need to rediscover the basic skill set of batting according to the situation if they are to recapture anywhere near there best form.
Defeat in Asia is hardly a new phenomenon for England – a loss in the home series against the West Indies would be something to worry about.