Bell back after short spell in the wilderness

Stephen Brenkley says Ian Bell can emerge from Kevin Pietersen's shadow and finally fulfil the promise of his early career
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The Independent Online

Kingston, Jamaica, February 7, 2009, three balls to go before lunch. Ian Bell's international career is about to implode. Much-needed respite is at hand for England and for Bell.

A chance to regroup. But Bell preposterously has other ideas. Sulieman Benn, West Indies' left-arm spin bowler, delivers, from his great height, a ball which is short of a length and innocuously outside off stump. So close to the interval with England at 11 for one and still 63 runs adrift, it may as well be accompanied by a message saying: "Leave me alone."

Bell leans back and attempts to cut it. He falls away in the shot, his balance wrong, the stroke ill-conceived, badly executed, and he feathers the faintest of catches behind.

Lunch is taken. Shortly after it, England are bowled out for 51 and have lost the First Test and, as it would turn out, the series.

To blame Bell for the defeats would be pushing it. But the subsequent collapse in the face of fast, accurate swing bowling by Jerome Taylor, was predicated on Bell's actions. It was time for him and England to sever relations for a while.

The subject was never specifically raised but it was an unspoken truism that he was not about to be picked again on that tour, or any time soon. Bell knew it, the selectors knew it. It is instructive that he did not sulk or whinge, he just got on with it. He was hurt all right, and like all dropped players probably thought he deserved more communication from coach and captain, but of pouting lips there was no public sighting.

In the absence of Kevin Pietersen, he is back now, still only 27, partly because he has exhibited a semblance of form (though not, observers opine, of his purest sort), partly because he has rediscovered in the word of the national selector, Geoff Miller, his determination and partly because the quality of English batting at present is nothing to write home about.

Bell's quality is not in doubt. He was destined to play cricket for England. Not quite when he was in the cradle but not long after he could first hold a bat. The path was a gilded one and laid out for him: age group sides, first county match at 19, picked as a replacement for an England side not long after. Eventually, he was kept waiting for his Test debut until 2004, the selectors wishing to be sure, though you never are. He was still only 22. In 2005 Bell played in the Ashes triumph. It was all too much for him and though he scored two fifties at Old Trafford he finished with a pair. But the richness of the talent was obvious.

By now, the 2009 Ashes, it was felt, he would be part of a thunderously classy middle order, of which Pietersen would be the other vital component. Instead, Bell has never quite broken through. Perhaps it will embolden him now that he is not batting in Pietersen's direct shadow.

There have been strong indications of a gutsy Test batsman, the cussed one who had a late reprieve at Lord's against Pakistan in 2006 and made 100 not out and who followed it with two more centuries in the series. Then, there was the classic one who ripped off 199 of the sweetest runs against South Africa, also at Lord's, last summer. Promotion to No 3 soon after was a flop. It did not help that for the first time in his international career he looked out of form. In 12 innings after the 199 he made one fifty.

Bell's diffident character has been questioned and his upper body has visibly burgeoned as if that provided a solution. The Australians will be on his case this week but he must simply remember that he can do things with a bat, indeed in the nets with half a bat, that might elude even Pietersen. It was Pietersen who expressed the selectors' desire on Sky. "He's a world class player and being left out for so long has hardened Belly up," he said. There is a genuine feeling that this could be Bell's time and that sometime in the next three matches his batting will produce the reaction of the old rogue Leslie Phillips when he saw a pretty girl: "I say, ding dong."

Testing times: Bell's batting stats

*In 46 Tests, Ian Bell has scored 3,004 runs including eight centuries at an average of 40.59.

*In his 10 Test appearances against Australia, Bell has hit 502 runs, with his batting average only 25.10.

*Bell will start at No 3 in the third Ashes Test at Edgbaston on Thursday, replacing the injured Kevin Pietersen. When batting at No 3 in Tests Bell has averaged 44.71, his lowest average. Bell's highest average is 54.41 when batting at No 5.