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Ian Bell on England v South Africa, The Hundred and Aston Villa

As part of his bi-weekly column for bet365, former England batter Ian Bell shares his thoughts on the recent T20 series with South Africa, the upcoming Test series, what he expects from Zak Crawley and Alex Lees, the form of Jonny Bairstow, this year's iteration of The Hundred, and Aston Villa's opening day defeat to Bournemouth.

T20 series defeat

The T20 series with South Africa was interesting with the World Cup around the corner, though I do feel for some of the players at the moment; there’s been a lot of cricket jammed into a short period of time, which hasn’t helped all the England players, but I think they’d say they’re a bit inconsistent, and South Africa capitalised on that.

They’ve got some really dangerous players, but that’s the beauty of T20 cricket, it only takes one player to have a really good day and you can win.

Obviously there’s been a change of leadership, without Eoin Morgan for the first time, which makes it feel a bit different. There have also been quite a few injuries with the ball, so other people are getting opportunities, and we’re seeing different combinations, and certainly in T20, getting the right match-ups is really important, so I’m not overly worried about the performances or the results; obviously they’ll want to win a bit closer to the World Cup, but particularly now with no Morgan it will be a little bit strange for everyone.

England favourites for Test series

England should go into this as favourites. At the start of the summer it was all doom and gloom but the mood has changed dramatically with Ben Stokes, Brendon McCullum and Rob Key at the helm, there’s now a very positive mood, and England should be too good for South Africa at home.

They do look a bit lighter in the batting compared to what they have in the past, with the likes of Quinton de Kock or AB de Villers, but what they do possess is a lot of pace and world class bowlers.

They’ve got Keshav Maharaj as a quality left-arm spinner, and if they want to play two spinners they’ve also got Simon Harmer who does amazingly well for Essex and has played a lot of cricket in England, so that will be the challenge. They’ll have a bit more pace than New Zealand had – obviously Trent Boult was exceptional in that series, but South Africa do have quite a potent attack.

It will be interesting to see how South Africa approach things having seen England chase down massive totals. It’s been an incredibly dry summer, and the ball hasn’t done quite as much or stayed as hard as they normally do, so it has played into England’s hands a little bit with the conditions, and I think teams will be a little bit wary.

Having spoken to guys in that environment, the beauty of it is it’s not necessarily all about smashing it about like England did, which was great; it’s freeing themselves up, taking a bit of pressure away, and being a bit more positive, and doing that however you can.

The New Zealand series was quite incredible, as was the chase against India; those games could’ve gone both ways, but England were brave enouh to go for the win quite early in those innings, which sets the tone and puts more pressure back on the bowlers which was important, but the challenge will come when things don’t quite go England’s way.

There’s no doubt they’re a very dangerous team now, and teams were certainly be considering declarations and how much is enough for England not to chase. It’s a really nice way to talk about England Test cricket at the moment, because we’ve had a tough year, so any positivity is great, and hopefully there’ll be more wins this summer.

Big series for Crawley and Lees

I’d like to see more consistency from Zak Crawley. We see glimpses with him of a player who has an incredibly high ceiling, but in Test match cricket, glimpses aren’t enough; when you get in you’ve got to go big. I’d like to see a more solid defence, particularly in the channel. He’ll know he’s under pressure in this series and it’s a big summer for him. England have been fantastically loyal and supportive, but that only goes so far, not just externally, but for himself, and he’ll know he needs to score early in this series.

For Alex Lees I thought the last innings at Edgbaston was the best I’ve seen him play for England. He was decisive and solid in his defence, and while he played some nice attacking shots, I was more impressed with how he defended, and how he gave a good platform to the rest of the team. It’s so important to have an opening combination which is confident in defence and get you through the first hour or two of a Test match so the middle order can enjoy a softer ball. But like Crawley, he needs more consistency, and when he gets in he’ll need a score early in the series.

Brilliant Bairstow

Jonny Bairstow has taken all the plaudits over the last few weeks with his incredible performances. I’ve not noticed any major changes with him, but he’s in red-hot form and full of confidence, and he’s so dangerous when he’s in that frame of mind.

I think the most impressive thing – while he was aggressive and hit a lot of sixes – was that he was quite calm. It was low-risk, it wasn’t just head down, slogging. I don’t know the conversations that have happened, but it looks like Stokes and McCullum have found a way to free him up and let him play his natural game.

The Hundred

I really enjoyed The Hundred last year, I thought it was brilliant. I’m a massive supporter of county cricket, but what we’ve got is a more condensed game, with very high quality. There are no bad teams and most games will go down to the wire.

With the Commonwealth Games just finishing we haven’t had many of the double headers yet, which I thought was one of the best things about it last year, creating a great atmosphere.

From a Phoenix point of view, we’ve only just got back in the ground, which has been a little bit disruptive for us in terms of preparation, not being at Edgbaston.

Improvement needed at Villa

The Tyrone Mings situation is interesting, being dropped and losing the captaincy. I know John McGinn relatively well and you get the impression he’s a bit of a leader on the field anyway.

Mings can be a little bit inconsistent, but I think he’s a great athlete and a fine footballer. I don’t know what’s gone on behind closed doors, but maybe Steven Gerrard doesn’t feel he’ll be a regular starter this season. It’s an interesting one and I’d love to have been a fly on the wall for it.

But with the signings we’ve made, and having a good manager, I think Saturday was a bit of a shock to the system. Everyone was expecting to get off to a bit of a flyer starting with Bournemouth, and while there are no easy games in the Premier League, they’d have liked a better performance. They’ll expect a big response, and Everton at home is now a massive game.

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