Bell buoyant for his biggest career move

The graduate: Warwickshire batsman rewarded as time tolls to consolidate international credentials
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If you were being picky, Ian Bell has not moved on much. Three years ago, he was the next big thing in English batting. And now here we are, towards the fag end of 2004, and Ian Bell is the next big thing in English batting. Nobody ever travelled so far to stand so still.

If you were being picky, Ian Bell has not moved on much. Three years ago, he was the next big thing in English batting. And now here we are, towards the fag end of 2004, and Ian Bell is the next big thing in English batting. Nobody ever travelled so far to stand so still.

Permission is hereby granted to get excited. Anybody who saw Bell's debut Test innings at The Oval in August towards the end of a belting summer with Warwickshire recognises what now might be at hand. He came up with a minor gem that bespoke an assertive batting presence.

The initial assessment was not exactly wrong, merely premature. Bell has worked his socks off to retain his billing and paradoxically is, of course, a much better player and also more mature as a person.

Sometimes, it goes to show, the selectors get it right. Tomorrow, Bell embarks on his first tour with England as a chosen squad member, for the contentious one-day series in Zimbabwe. He will rejoin the party for the one-dayers in South Africa early next year, but is still only first batting reserve for the Test series there in between.

It would have been simple to have picked him at the beginning of 2002. He had been earmarked since the age of 11 as a potential international batsman, he had batted with youthful brio for his county the summer before, he had been a model pupil at the new national academy and had been called up as cover to the England party the following winter. He was still only 19, and although he did not play, the reports had ticks in the right boxes.

The firm expectation was that he would be in the team for the first Test of the 2002 summer, against Sri Lanka. Far from the perception that they refuse to give youth a fling, selectors almost invariably cave in, so that players of promise rather than achievement are rapidly ushered in to assuage the masses.

On this occasion they resisted, though as if to demonstrate how close they came, the chairman of selectors, David Graveney, actually rang the young buck to commiserate and explain his non- selection. "That was nice," said Bell.

He did not precisely say so as he prepared for an indoor net in the Edgbaston indoor school last week, but he conveyed a clear impression that he was grateful to have been left alone to continue learning without the horrendous expectation of leading English cricket into a brave new world.

"Deep down I knew I wasn't ready to play," he said. "It would have been good to get a taste, but I didn't have what it took to cement a place in the England side. I was still playing as a schoolboy cricketer really, relying on other people to tell me what I should be doing."

Bell rewarded the selectors' judgement by having two thoroughly indifferent seasons. There was the occasional high point to remind us that time would toll, such as his dynamic innings in the last Benson & Hedges Cup final at Lord's, when he made a gold award-winning 73. But there were a lot of 20s and 30s, insubstantial fripperies.

"I was working hard, trying to make sure I did the right things, but in a way I was probably trying too hard, trying to get a hundred before I was off the mark," he said. "I wanted to do it so much. People had said and written so many good things and I wanted to prove to them what a good player I was."

But only now is the boy becoming a man. A lot has happened to the next big thing. The vestiges of puppy fat have given way to chiselled features, the bristles would be more at home in a hardcore Western than a teenage rom-com, and the batting clinches it.

In the middle of the summer, Bell's friends and protectors were still advising against picking him too soon for England. Nick Knight, Warwickshire's captain, who knew the big time, said he was not quite ready. He was coming on, said Knight, but he implored the selectors not to rush. The county coach, John Inverarity from Western Australia, sheltered him like a son. But Bell then made in succession Championship scores of 155, 96 not out, 112, 181 and 121, following which Graham Thorpe pulled out of the Fourth Test against West Indies.

To avoid picking him, David Graveney might as well have called his Uncle Tom out of retirement. Bell went in at 61 for 3, survived an lbw shout first ball and then a working-over from the distinctly rapid Jermaine Lawson, who peppered him with short stuff and hit him on the shoulder. Bell saw it through and looked full of easy authority. In short, here was an international batsman. "I know I couldn't have been in at a better time, in form with England winning," he said.

Omitting him from the Test winter squad must have been a close-run decision, but Bell was not being falsely modest when he said it was correct. The others have earned their place. But the sense that Bell is ready is also obvious.

"I'm tighter technically now but I think there is a more positive element to my play," he said. "For those two seasons I didn't want to get out so I was just blocking and leaving, not giving the bowler much to think about.

"So I set out to be positive, from little things like calling loud and when you block, do so positively by getting a good stride in. When you walk to the crease, look like you want to make an impact on the game. It's not just batting. This is what I've learned from John Inverarity."

There was one other crucial aspect to his development in which Inverarity was instrumental in his paternal coaching role. Last winter, at the coach's instigation, Bell went to play club cricket in Perth, but all Inverarity did was to give him a contact at the club. From the age of 10 Bell had had everything done and organised for him as a cricketer; now here he was in a foreign land with nowhere to live and no car to drive.

At first, he wondered what the hell Inverarity was doing: he now recognises the cute "sink or swim" psychology. "That was a massive learning curve for me and it showed on the pitch. I became a much maturer batsman because of the experience." Perhaps it would have happened anyway, perhaps 19-year-olds with wispy beards and batting methods naturally develop steel in both. Perhaps not.

"I wanted to play for England regularly in Test cricket, not just play one or two matches but make a real career of it," he said. You heard it here last: Ian Bell, the next big thing.