Ian Bell: Comeback kid who was born to beat Aussies
Batsman who looked destined to play Test cricket lost his way two years ago but he has been given another chance and grabbed it with both hands. Stephen Brenkley meets Ian Bell
Sunday 05 December 2010
It looked as if it could all be over for Ian Bell. The brightest spark of his generation, who had been destined to play Test cricket since he was in short pants, had messed it up again.
In the West Indies early last year, Bell understood precisely what, in cricketing terms, was meant by hell coming to paradise. First Test, Kingston, first innings: Bell plays beautifully, poetically at first and then for no apparent reasons stops and, approaching lunch, is flummoxed by a non-turning off-break from Chris Gayle. He nicks to slip. It looks awful.
First Test, Kingston, second innings: Bell is part of the stunning collapse which sees England fall to 51 all out. It is not the whirlwind pace of Jerome Taylor that does for him but the left-arm spin of the gangling Sulieman Benn, whom he decides to cut in the last over before lunch. He falls back on the shot, gets an under-edge, Denesh Ramdin takes a good catch.
Perhaps it was the catalyst for the destruction that followed as Taylor tore through England. West Indies won the series, Bell did not appear in it again, he might never have played for England again.
He spent the rest of the tour training. If you saw Bell, he was running on the beach with the England security man, Reg Dickason (and some people were going home as they emerged from their beds) or in the gym.
"It was a turning point and it could have gone one of two ways," he said. "I could easily have thought, well I have played my 40 Test matches, and gone back to play for Warwickshire. I could have gone that way but I knew I couldn't leave it there because I knew that there was something more.
"It was probably the best thing that ever happened to me, getting dropped. [England coach] Andy Flower gave me some really honest feedback at the time. I look back at that game, I was playing beautifully and then went a little bit negative playing for lunch. I probably hadn't played well for a period of time in an England shirt. It had to change, it had to, people deserved their opportunity."
And now, 22 months later, Bell is back in the England team. He is looking like a million dollars again. Established, once more, at No 6 this time, it really is his time. A glance back at the cuttings shows that this has been written before on major England tours but this time, honestly,it is different. He is different.
Bell's international career was resurrected more quickly than anybody might have expected. His selfless, solitary toil in the Caribbean was rewarded by some solid early-season form for Warwickshire. And then Kevin Pietersen's Achilles tendon gave way. Bell was back. It had to be his final chance, the last time he could prove conclusively what people had been saying since he was 12.
Much, rightly, was made of England's top three all scoring hundreds in the First Test in Brisbane. In the rush to heap praise on Andrew Strauss, Jonathan Trott and above all Alastair Cook, the gem of an innings by Bell in the lacklustre first innings was overlooked.
But it was mature, stylish and controlled. It showed how far he had come from those days in 2005 when he batted at No 3 in the greatest Ashes series of all. He made three fifties in the series, but in general Australia outsmarted him.
"I see myself now as a hell of a lot better player than I was in 2005," he said. "The likes of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne were all over me at times but I don't see any disgrace in that. Maybe I wasn't ready, not really ready, for Test cricket.
"To become a Test player isn't just about ability. There are all sorts of physical and mental aspects and they are the two areas I have improved on without a shadow of a doubt. I haven't really tinkered much with the technical side, but when you're playing Test cricket you must have a mental side of the game and you have to work on that as much as you do in the nets, and I have really tried consciously to do that in the last 18 months.
"Don't forget, I wasn't given the place in the Test side through charity. I must have performed to a certain level in county cricket to play. But when I look back to 2005, I was nowhere near ready for Test cricket. I have learned a lot from the lessons I have had over the last six years."
Three innings helped to shape the new Bell. The first also tends to be overlooked. In the first innings of the decisive Ashes Test at The Oval in 2009, he made a patient, finely crafted 72 in difficult circumstances which helped to ensure that England had a serviceable total on an untypical Oval surface.
In South Africa the following winter, he had a dreadful hiccup in the First Test at Centurion when his thoughtless first-innings cut shot saw him bowled. Was there really a new Bell? The idea of a lamb wrapped in lion's clothing surfaced again.
Had there been a serious alternative, his place might have been injeopardy. There was not and in Durban, in the next match, in one of England's most complete Test victories of recent times, he made a delectable 140.
In the match after that there was something more telling, a last-day 78 from 286 balls that helped to save a lost cause. It drew abundant praise from Paul Collingwood, the master of lost causes, and you knew then that something had changed.
"Since coming back into the team I have worked with some really good people," said Bell. "Graham Gooch has added a new dimension to my game. We haven't really talked technical stuff, we have just talked about batting. It's really the first time I have talked away from the technical side about what makes a batsman. He's trying to instil that into all the batters; what makes a run-scorer. He calls them run-scorers rather than batters and that's what it is about: not how, but how many."
Bell was injured in the summer, falling awkwardly on a foot during a one-day international against Bangladesh. It forced him to miss the Test series against Pakistan – lucky chap, as it turned out. But it gave him some breathing space away from cricket.
"I think in a way that injury helped me a little bit," he said. "You can't really turn up for an Ashes series ready to go and last summer my build-up started when I hurt my foot. It gave me an opportunity to work with Gooch but also to work on the left-arm stuff, the right-arm stuff, and get my mind tapped into what we were going to face in Australia, shots I wanted to play in Australia."
Life has changed in other ways too. He is getting married next year between the end of the World Cup and the start of the English season. He might like a bash at the Indian Premier League if it manages to survive its present shambles. But it is Australia that concentrates the mind for the moment – if he can get much of a chance batting as low as No 6 in the present circumstances.
"I would say the two hardest things to do in Test cricket are winning in Australia and winning in India," he said. "But it would be the pinnacle of any person's career to win a Test series in Australia. We have to keep scrapping and keep scrapping until there's an opportunity to get a win.
"When you're playing other countries there isn't that edge to it that there is in an Ashes series. So you have to lose that emotion and stay logical in terms of what you're doing and how you're looking to play."
He is already a long way from the kid dubbed the "Shermanator", after the Chuck Sherman character in the movie American Pie. "That wasn't so hard," said Bell. "What I was desperate for as a young cricketer growing up watching Australia dominate England was for them to look at me and say, 'He's a good player'.
"The only thing that matters to me is what Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower and my team-mates think. I don't really care what Australia think." But they may come to think a very great deal indeed.
Life and times
Name Ian Ronald Bell.
Born 11 April 1982 in Walsgrave, Coventry.
County career Warwickshire from 1999.
International career After only 13 first-class games he was selected for 2001-02 tour of New Zealand, covering the injured Mark Butcher. Test debut versus West Indies at The Oval in August 2004.
Ashes record Debut in First Test defeat at Lord's in 2005; two half-centuries (59 and 65) in tense drawn Third Test at Old Trafford; a pair of ducks in decisive Fifth Test at The Oval.
His first-innings 50 at Brisbane was a lone act of resistance at the start of 2006-07 whitewash by Australia; Ashes best of 87in Third Test at Perth.
Recalled for Third Test of 2009 series at home ground of Edgbaston six months after being dropped, scoring 53; 72 at The Oval contributed to England's series-winning victory in Fifth Test. On current tour, scored 192 in warm-up victory over Australia A in Hobart, then contributed valuable 76 in first innings of drawn First Test at Brisbane.
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