Bell should be better for the toiling

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The Independent Online

In the circumstances, Ian Bell is holding up remarkably well. He knows that he was the great underachiever in the series against Australia - 171 runs in 10 innings, with 124 of them coming in the same match (the Third Test at Old Trafford) - and deep down he probably recognises that in any other era he might have been dropped.

"It was a huge eye-opener about what the highest level of Test cricket is all about," he said. "Everything that goes on around it, on the field, the expectation from the public, the media attention, it was all a big learning curve. I have played six years of county cricket and I've learned more in those five games than I could have done in that time."

Bell was picked against Australia because he had been picked against Bangladesh earlier in the summer. The selectors could hardly backtrack once he had made 65 not out and 162 not out in the first series. Instead, they ditched Graham Thorpe and put Bell in the middle order with Kevin Pietersen to combat the Aussies.

It was noticeable immediately that the cuts of their jibs were different. They share a huge ambition, but it was pretty clear that Pietersen would go out and grab his opportunity in a way that Bell could not. It was why some good judges who were close to him, such as his captain at Warwickshire, Nick Knight, had advised waiting. Knight had talked about the need for Bell to deal better with failure. In essence, it was about Bell growing up.

The man himself was anxious to avoid demeaning his contribution - and why not - and equally wary of betraying any vulnerability. But it was noticeable in the post-Ashes euphoria that he was subdued, almost taking a back seat, perhaps slightly ill at ease, which a series average of 17 can do to you.

"I get on really well with Kev, though I probably won't be getting a streak down my hair," he said. "I'll stick with the highlights. I'm not quite as bold. I'm confident in my own ability, but I guess him being a little bit older than me he has learnt a little bit more.

"I'd like to think that at 25 I'll have a bit more about me in terms of the confidence he has. To be honest, I didn't think I would be playing in the Ashes this year, and I am a bit gobsmacked to have been involved and to have won. At 23, you are probably not going to go in there and smack the Australians around the park. Stewie kept telling me I was there on merit."

"Stewie" is Alec Stewart, the most capped of all English cricketers, who has recently become Bell's agent. His company, Arundel Promotions, hope to sign a couple of other players in the England team. Stewart will provide the cricketing advice, with the business and commercial guidance coming from Alan Smith, the cerebral former football manager.

Bell, said Stewart, was a young 23. This is partly because of his essentially diffident, though unfailingly cour- teous, personality, and partly perhaps because most of his life from the age of 12 has been wrapped up with cricket.

"The experience he has got from the past few weeks in this series will stand him in good stead for the rest of his international career," said Stewart. "He has grown up as a cricketer, and probably started doing so from the very first ball at Lord's. He's going to be a very fine player indeed; there's something of the Michael Atherton about him."

England seem to have made up their mind about him. Not only was he in the touring squad, but he was also among the 12 players - the dozen who played in the Ashes series - awarded central contracts for the next 12 months. This was more than just a reward from a grateful nation, it demonstrated the selectors intend to continue with continuity.

Bell was undoubtedly grateful that Duncan Fletcher allowed him to play for Warwickshire in the final few matches of the season: "I love playing there," he said. On Monday he made 136 from 105 balls in a Totesport League match against Yorkshire and hit seven sixes. This was Pietersenesque.

Yet on that last morning of the Ashes at The Oval he wandered in when Michael Vaughan was out and you feared for his immediate future. It was nothing now to do with batting technique, it was all about what was in the mind. He edged his first ball from Glenn McGrath to the slips and was out. (Pietersen was in next, and although he was well beaten by McGrath's bouncer the difference was that he did not get a touch.)

"I felt OK when I walked out, a bit nervous, and I knew McGrath was homing in, the way he bowled that one to Vaughany," Bell said. "When I nicked it I thought it was going down. It hasn't quite happened, but I'm happy with the way the year has gone for me. I think it's probably more up here." He tapped the side of his head.

On reflection, England might have got it wrong. Before the series started, Graham Gooch said Bell should be omitted without doubting his talent. "The future can take care of itself," he said. But do not forget that Bell made two careful fifties at Old Trafford and looked the part. He also took more outfield catches than anybody else.

"I am mentally pretty drained, but physically I feel good," he said. "Obviously, I would like to be more physically tired because then I'd have got more runs. I think the selectors have a bit of faith in me and they're giving me a bit of time to find my feet. But I do know there's only a certain amount of time you've got to adjust, and the time is coming when Ian Bell has to start scoring runs."

The smart thinking says the selectors' faith is not misplaced, and that one day Bell's back will be slapped very hard indeed.