Bank on Bell in Test Series
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6pts Ian Bell's series runs to be over 190.5 at 5/6 (Bodog).
2pts Ian Bell to be England's top series run-scorer at 6/1 (Sky Bet, Ladbrokes, bodog).
It's hard to remember a more significant sporting event arriving with such muted fanfare as the Test series between England and South Africa that starts this week.
There are plenty of reasons: the weather, some other sporting shindig that's going off in London at the same time, the lack of a fourth (and fifth) Test, the unwelcome distraction of the Kevin Pietersen ODI availability farrago.
But let's look beyond all that. Because this should be a cracker. A genuine heavyweight contest of the sort we thought we'd get when India came to England last year and that hasn't actually happened on these shores since the 2005 Ashes.
The annual fixture cull may have seen South Africa drop to third in the ICC rankings, but they are undoubtedly a stronger side than second-placed Australia and will be worthy of the top spot they will take should they beat England on their own patch over the next month.
It's a fascinating match-up; the best bowling attack (England) on the planet against the best batting line-up (South Africa), an excellent bowling attack (South Africa) against an excellent batting line-up (England), the best home side in the world (England, seven straight series wins) against the best tourists (South Africa, who have staggeringly not lost an away series since 2006). Both sides are settled, boast vast experience and are extremely focused on the task at hand.
Series between these two sides have been keenly contested over recent years and there is no reason to expect anything different this time around.
It's not a bold prediction I grant you, but this should be a close one. The 1-1 draw looks a reasonable call at a general 4/1 while the 16s dangled on a 0-0 might not look the worst piece of business if mother nature gets up to more of her recent mischief or batsmen get on top.
However - despite the undoubted quality of the batting on display - it seems inconceivable that a pair of attacks boasting seven of the current top 14 bowlers in the world will be unable to force at least one result somewhere along the way.
Uncertainty about the weather and the closeness of the teams is enough to put us off an outright series pick. If pushed we'd favour the draw at 3/1 (despite our reservations, the weather this summer means it would probably be prudent to keep 0-0 onside rather than backing 1-1 at a slightly bigger price).
If you want a winner, we'd go with England based on a more reliable spinner and deeper fast-bowling stocks should any first-choice incumbents fall by the wayside in a quickfire series.
But we feel there are better bets elsewhere. Were the weather forecast clear, we'd certainly be having a bet on England to win the first Test at 15/8.
In a break with convention, the opening Test of the series is at The Oval. England's recent record here is - as it is at most of their home grounds - excellent, with six wins in the last nine. But it's also a ground where South Africa have historically struggled. They've failed to win in 13 trips to SE11 and have lost all three of their matches at Surrey's HQ since readmission.
But more important than those historical stats is England's recent record at the start of a campaign. Since 2009, when Lord's stopped serving up featherbeds and nailed-on draws, England have won six opening rubbers in the last seven series and each of the last five.
Partly this is down to England's inherent superiority in their own conditions, but equally their opponents' shortfalls are exposed.
As is generally the case with modern tours, and this time further hampered by the weather, South Africa arrive for the first Test undercooked and short of cricket while also needing to alter the line-up and balance of the side due to Mark Boucher's unfortunate injury.
England are ruthless in these situations and given a clear five days we'd back Andrew Strauss' side to take a huge step towards retaining their spot at the summit of the ICC's rankings by going one up with two to play.
But the current forecast suggests five clear days is an unlikely scenario. Best to hang fire on that one.
We will have a couple of wagers on Ian Bell, though, whose horrors at the hands of Saeed Ajmal still seem to be looming large in the minds of the bookies when pricing up the batting markets.
However, back on home soil only Alastair Cook can match Bell's exploits over the last couple of years.
In his last four home Test series Bell hasn't been outside the top three in the run charts and has racked up some superb stats. Those four series have seen Bell accrue 1,202 runs from 16 innings with five 50s and five centuries (one of them a double). His average over that period is 109.27, while his average runs per innings (rather than dismissal) is still north of 75.
His recent form is also sound. Having returned to the top of the order in the one-day side with great success after KP's retirement, Bell's international efforts this summer currently read (most recent first): 4, 69, 75, 41, 53, 126, 76*, 22, 61, 63*.
And he has no reason to fear South Africa either, having enjoyed rock-solid series against the Proteas home and away with 332 runs at 47.42 in England in 2008 and then 313 at 44.71 in South Africa 18 months later.
bodog pitch his over-under series runs line at 190.5 and that looks a gift to us. Bell went past that in one innings when South Africa last toured these shores and if he goes anywhere close to his recent home Test form he'll need just three knocks to land the bet. He should get rather more than that.
Some may point to batting down at five being a hindrance to his run-scoring potential. But the flipside - avoiding Steyn, Morkel and Philander charging in with the new ball which leaves key rivals Cook, Strauss and Trott vulnerable to some low scores - more than counters that in our eyes.
We'll have a decent wager on Bell passing the 190.5 with bodog, and also back the in-form Warwickshire man to top England's run-scoring charts for the series at 6/1.