From Shermanator to Terminator is some trip. It has taken Ian Bell eight years and almost as many changes of hair colour. In 2005 anybody would mess with him, in 2013 everybody would think twice.
That first Ashes series, epic in scale and content, was a rude awakening for Bell. He was an immensely gifted player who did not have a clue what he was doing. The Australians in general and Shane Warne in particular liked what they saw, which was a nerd, and hence he became the Shermanator, the ginger-haired loser from the movie American Pie. Bell might as well have gone swimming with sharks.
But he survived the experience and now here he is in the middle of his fifth Ashes series, batting master of all he surveys. Bell has scored hundreds in each of his last three Tests against Australia, in Sydney early in 2011 and at Trent Bridge and Lord’s in the first two matches of this Ashes summer.
He is one of only four England players to have achieved that feat and were he to score another at Old Trafford in the third Investec Test starting on Thursday he would be alone in the achievement. His endeavours – mature, pragmatic, patient – have already all but terminated Australia’s hopes of regaining the Ashes.
Essentially, Bell has made the journey from boy to man and he remains more pleasing on the eye than any other batsman in England. He may yet end up scoring more runs.
“From my first couple of Ashes series I knew I had to improve,” he said. “I don’t really feel too bad about the previous series but it is nice to be able to do things when the team need it most and scoring hundreds is what you want to do. To have three against Australia is exactly where I want to be.”
His progress as an international batsman is reflected in the Ashes. Always the golden child of English batting as a kid, the gauche 23-year-old of 2005, expected to bat in the blue riband position of No 3, had advanced a little 18 months later in Australia but was still engulfed.
The way he played his cricket then and the misfortune it brought was no better summed up than in England’s second innings at Adelaide Oval. The whole side were suddenly seized by doubt on the fifth morning with the match seemingly beyond Australia, but Bell hesitated fatally over a single and was run out.
By 2009 he was a more complete specimen, having been temporarily dropped from the side. His 72 at The Oval in the match which won the Ashes has generally been overlooked but it was an accomplished, resilient innings.
Bell started to impose himself on the tour of 2010-11 by when he had dropped down the order to No 6. He made fifties in all but one of the five matches and in the fifth, at last, he made his maiden Ashes hundred at the 31st time of asking.
There was an incident in it which perhaps embodied how his fortune had changed. Blissfully though he batted, he was spared on 67 when he appeared to inside edge Shane Watson. The review, which showed no Hot Spot, allowed him to continue.
It was a similar case at Trent Bridge a fortnight ago. Bell was given out lbw when he was 34 but asked for a review and the ball was shown to be missing leg stump. The unfortunate bowler was again Watson.
Over the course of a long career – and Bell has played 90 Test matches – you make your own luck, of course. He has too often been out when he has done the hard work of laying the foundations to an innings. It has perplexed his admirers – “Oh Belly, for heaven’s sake, not again” – and fuelled his detractors – “Bell you’re too soft by half”.
At the start of this series there was a perceived vulnerability in his play and to his place in the side which should not afflict a batsman who has been around 10 years and has an average in the mid-forties. Last winter there had been a familiar mix: a terrible dismissal at Ahmedabad when he drove crazily and was caught in the deep, and a match-saving 75 from 251 balls at Auckland.
He had a weak series against New Zealand at home in May. He had to be saving something. He was. Now he has crossed the divide, knowing what the Big Game really is. It is the difference between the Shermanator and the Terminator.
There was more evidence of this at Lord’s last week. After his glittering hundred in the first innings, Bell took his time to settle in the second. When he was three, he appeared to be caught in the gully off Ryan Harris. It looked out.
But the umpires told him to stand his ground and he was again given a stay of execution – the third in five innings against Australia – when the third umpire decreed that there was insufficient evidence the ball had carried to Steve Smith. It was easy to suppose that the Bell of eight years ago would have been given out, or the ball might have travelled six more inches off the ground, removing all doubt.
He should relish returning to Old Trafford. He has a better record there than on any ground where he has played at least three Test innings, averaging 81. It was there that he made his only significant contribution of the 2005 series, with fifties in both innings of an unforgettable draw.
It has been fascinating to watch Bell develop, to see him fulfil the talent that has been bestowed on him. The cover drive is still a thing of beauty and now he seems instinctively to know when to play it. He has stopped messing around with his hair, he is happily married to the lovely Chantal and earlier this year their first son, Joe, was born.
It is just what happens in any walk of life on the route from 20-something rookie with a gift but little nous to 30-something veteran and family man. It might have been the making of Ian Bell.
Bell rings changes: Hot in the ashes
After failing to hit a century in his first 17 Tests against Australia, averaging 29.51, Ian Bell has scored successive tons in the last three Ashes Tests (average 86.40).
Jan 2011, Sydney Hit a masterful 115 as England’s 644 contributed to an innings victory.
July 2013, Trent Bridge Top-scored with 109 in England’s second innings as Alastair Cook’s side edged home.
July 2013, Lord’s Rescued England’s first innings with another 109 before valuable 74 in his second knock, with the hosts sauntering into a 2-0 lead.