Ian Bell: 'In the last 18 months, I've joined the likes of Ponting'
The Brian Viner Interview: The most talented England batsman of his generation goes into the World Cup starting to realise his potential – and with the right to be mentioned alongside the greats
Friday 18 February 2011
The great Sachin Tendulkar is not the only cricketer preparing for the World Cup to have been identified, in his mid-teens, as a batting wunderkind with the world at his feet. Another is Ian Bell, once hailed by Dayle Hadlee, son of Walter, brother of Richard, and therefore not a bad judge, as the best 16-year-old he had ever seen.
Twelve years on, Bell is finally living up to all that extravagant promise. The most stylish of England's batsmen when he's on song, these days he hits his notes more often than not. Yet he is the first to admit that an international career which began in both Test and one-day arenas in 2004, has yielded as much disappointment as fulfilment. Despite plenty of fifties, for example, his brilliant century in the fifth Test in Sydney last month was his first in four Ashes series. And so it seems reasonable to ask whether all that early fuss burdened him with expectation, and whether he has at last shrugged it from his shoulders.
"That's a good question," he says obligingly. He is sitting in his room, high up in the England team hotel in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. Outside, in the heat and dust, there is traffic mayhem. But Bell, as usual, is calmness personified. "I don't know whether I played Test cricket a bit too early," he says, which we can take as an admission that he did. "In those early years I wasn't as mature or solid as I thought I was, and it took some adjusting to. I walked away [from the Ashes victory] in '05 aware of how much further I needed to go to become a very good Test cricketer, playing against the likes of Hayden, Warne, Langer, McGrath, Ponting. Those guys showed me how top Test cricketers go about their business, and in the last 18 months I feel I've got there myself."
For now, though, it is the one-day game that concerns us. Bell was part of the side that flopped in the 2007 World Cup, and more pertinently part of the team crushed 6-1 in the recent series in Australia. So what on earth makes him think that England can go all the way in this World Cup?
"To be honest, our confidence levels are fantastic," he says. "We were out in Australia for a long time, and by the end of it we were seven guys down to injury. Going home for four days, catching up with people, and coming back out to new surroundings, has really freshened things up. Our energy levels are pretty good now."
As a statement of intent, this falls some way short of gung-ho. But then Bell is not that sort of bloke, as the soon-to-be Mrs Bell is doubtless aware. He is due to get married shortly after his return from India and Bangladesh, and is not allowing himself to think how nice it will be to tie the knot as a World Cup winner. In fact, he's trying to wipe the wedding from his mind. "I've left all the planning at home. Obviously I'm looking forward to it, but I've been told not to think about it. I'm just excited to be back in the one-day side, and privileged to be out here. There's no better place to play cricket than the subcontinent, especially as a batter."
There must, though, still be a pall of disappointment hanging over the squad, following the battering in Australia.
"Well, it was very disappointing at the time, of course it was. But our main goal was to win the Ashes. No disrespect to the one-day game but all our energy went into winning the Ashes, and it's difficult to play with intensity for that amount of time on one tour. We tried as hard as we could in the one-dayers, but we were a bit unlucky with injuries, and things just didn't click. The batters weren't getting big scores, and we didn't get those big partnerships that make such a difference in one-day cricket. We got to 300 three times, we could have gone 2-1 up after three games, and at times we played some good cricket, but we just didn't find any consistency. Now we're feeling strong and ready to go again."
The 1-6 scoreline notwithstanding, he adds, there were also some mighty positives to come out of the series. "The young guys, like Chris Woakes and Finny [Steven Finn], got a chance to play the top-ranked one-day team in front of full houses. Chris took 6 for 45 [in Brisbane], and to do that at the age of 21, that's a massive bonus for us as a group and for English cricket."
Young Woakes, though, was not selected for the World Cup, and certainly the subcontinent offers entirely different cricketing challenges to those Down Under. "In the nets here in Dhaka, the ball hardly bounces above knee height," says Bell, "whereas at the Waca, most balls bounce above stump height. So there's no point worrying about what happened in Australia, because the conditions and wickets here are so different. The important thing is to play well in the practice games and take some good momentum into next week."
England's first match is against the Netherlands on Tuesday, and with several current England players (though not Bell) having been in the team that lost to the Dutch in the Twenty20 World Cup two years ago, at Lord's of all places, complacency can surely be ruled out. All the same, aren't thoughts already straying to India on Sunday week in Bangalore?
"Well, that has certainly happened in the past, getting ahead of ourselves. But I don't think it will be a problem this time. We can't be 80 per cent committed to a game, it has to be 100 per cent, which is what held us in such good stead ahead of the Ashes."
Bell is expected to bat at five in the World Cup, having played most of his one-day games, both for Warwickshire and England, in the top three of the order. He does not mind admitting that he prefers to bat higher up. "But you can't always do what you want, you have to do what the team is asking of you," he says, almost as if he is reading from a teamsmanship manual. "And my game is flexible enough to bat in any position. Plus, I'll be playing a fair amount of spin in the middle order, and I see that as a strong area of my game now. Spin is going to be crucial in this World Cup."
He cites the astute coaching skills of Graham Gooch as the principal reason he has improved against spin, although not with any particular adjustments in his technique. "It's more about a frame of mind. I've always been able to use my feet well, but I've had a change of mindset since working with Graham. It's all about showing intent to the spinner, and getting the field to where I want it to be. I feel in really good form, and I have to just go out and express that, and contribute with my fielding too."
In that dicey area just in front of the bat, Bell has become a genuine specialist. If he'll forgive a question from a village cricketer, who likes nothing less than to be posted at silly mid-off, doesn't he get, well, scared? A chuckle. "There are times when it's not comfortable, yeah. When the batter's on the attack, it can be a horrible place. But when we're closing in on a Test win or a series win, and you're right in the mix, trying to take a catch off Swanny [Graeme Swann] or Monty Panesar, there's no better place."
Whenever he gets the chance, Bell seems to prefer to discuss Test cricket. It is, he concedes, by far his favourite form of the game. "That's what I grew up wanting to play, and what I hold strongest in my heart. Test cricket is what you look back on when you retire, and it's what tests you in all areas, technique, mentality, everything, things that don't always come up in other forms of the game. Test cricket is where my main ambitions are. I'm 28 and I've scored 12 hundreds, but I want to get on to that Test centuries list, and help England climb the rankings to No 1, and stay there."
Amen to all that, but what are his one-day ambitions? To win the World Cup, presumably? "Yeah, but we haven't looked at the finish line. First we need to get into a winning rhythm, which we didn't do in the West Indies four years ago. In that World Cup we really felt that we'd let people down, and let ourselves down. This time we want to show how much further forward we've come."
The dream scenario, I posit, though well aware by now that this level-headed man doesn't really deal in dream scenarios, would be to play, and beat, those pesky Aussies in the final? "Well, yeah, that would be an amazing finish to the winter. The Twenty20 guys say that beating Australia in the [2010 World Cup] final made it that bit more special. But we'd take anyone. And actually it's nice having fresh opposition, as well."
If England do reach the final, then they will be on the subcontinent until April, quite a stretch away from home for the blokes who arrived in Australia in October, and have since had only a fleeting trip back to Blighty. Moreover, India and Bangladesh can present travails off the field as well as on.
"Yeah, some of the guys will go down ill, we know that. But a lot of the guys really enjoy it here. You know what to expect, and there's nothing like it anywhere else."
Nicely said, and I have one final test for his diplomatic skills. The subcontinent is also, regrettably, the epicentre of corruption in cricket. Have he and his team-mates been warned not to talk to strangers in lifts? "We've had an ICC meeting about corruption, they said what they needed to say, and we listened. We're all aware of what goes on. But I'm just looking forward to playing now, and giving it everything I've got." Which is plenty, as everyone now knows.
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