Bell walked to the crease as a boy and came back a man

England's unlikely hero enjoys rite of passage and will surely now kick on
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The Independent Online

On thousands of occasions, maybe a million, it has been said of Ian Bell that he has what it takes to be an international batsman. This time it is true. This time the evidence is irrefutable.

Last Thursday at Newlands, Bell went out to bat with England up the creek. It was just before noon, they were 160 for 5 and much of the smart thinking was that they would soon be without a paddle. Bell walked to the crease as a boy; almost five hours later he came back a man.

It helped – boy, did it help – that Paul Collingwood was at the other end. He does defiance and rearguard actions in his sleep, he probably thinks Leonidas was an old softie. But the blessed Collingwood needed a comrade in resistance and he needed one now. Bell answered the call.

Throughout nearly four hours and 344 balls together they managed to repel South Africa. They did not quite finish the job. Collingwood was out in the first over of the last hour and, more dramatically, Bell went with 17 balls to be bowled, the ninth man out. England, however, somehow survived. They drew the match, they still led 1-0 in the series.

Bell's 78, scored from 213 balls, was an addition to his 140, made from only 14 balls more, which was instrumental in the precious victory at Durban in the Second Test. Bell, who was playing for his life a fortnight ago, is now the side's leading run-scorer in the series. He has played fluently, diligently, doggedly. There are plenty more series to come for him now.

What a rite of passage Bell has had to reach this point. No player with his enviably rich talent, who has already scored nine Test hundreds and 22 fifties, could have been so doubted. He had begun to doubt himself.

On Friday morning, Bell was asked if the last two Tests had been significant. "I guess so, I needed it for sure," he said. "Durban might have been my last chance, Centurion didn't go to plan at all, I was nowhere there and I needed a big score, something that helped the side win a game."

In Durban, Bell saved his international career; in Cape Town he ensured that it had plenty of other places to go. But to reach this point, he has been to dark corners where he has been forced to address the fact that talent alone cannot bring success. He was dropped after the First Test in Jamaica last year having played a cut shot in the over before lunch which had him caught behind and precipitated England's collapse to 51 all out. It did him a favour. Out of the side, he did not sulk, he worked and kept working. He got up early and trained, he began a new regime which involved boxing, assisted selflessly by England's security manager, Reg Dickerson. He needed to feel pain.

He was recalled by England for the Ashes series only when Kevin Pietersen was injured. He made a crucial, easily overlooked 72 in the victory at The Oval. But still it was not right, he was not the Bell he could and should be.

For long enough on this tour of South Africa it was presumed that Bell would not be in the XI to start the series, and when he was picked for the First Test in Centurion, because it was decided late that England needed six batsmen, he was awful. He shouldered arms to be bowled innocuously in the first innings, and when England were desperately trying to save the match in the second he failed in the heat of the battle by edging to slip. It seemed it would never happen for him.

"It goes back to the West Indies when I got left out after Jamaica," he said. "In that period I learnt a lot about myself, what I needed to cut out, what I needed to improve on to make myself a tougher cricketer. I did a lot of thinking about how to make myself tougher as well as physically better.

"I have worked with some good people and worked outside the cricket environment fitness-wise with a bit of boxing, which has helped toughen me up. I knew I had to change. I don't think technically I was struggling but other areas I had to improve on, if I hadn't addressed them I would not be here now.

"I did a fair bit with Reg in the Windies and it was something I enjoyed. It put me in a tough place and when I went back to Warwickshire they were doing it in the off-season, with Darren Grewcock from Leicester Tigers. Then I had five weeks with him while the one-dayers were going on leading up to this series. It was not easy but well worth doing."

This demonstrates conclusively how much Bell wanted to make it work, how much he realised that it was all slipping away from him, all that he had thought would be his from the age of 12. His excellence was not in doubt but the measure of his boyish (but, it has to be said, eternally sunny) personality can be gleaned from the fact that his former captain, Michael Vaughan, has referred to him as a dweeb. But England, in the form of their coach, Andy Flower, and captain, Andrew Strauss, stuck by him.

"Both Andys have been unbelievable for me," said Bell. "I had a good chat with Straussy before the Durban Test and he was backing me all the way and gave me every confidence he wanted me in the side, which helped. Both have been fantastic to me and it's great to repay that faith they showed picking me against Australia and in this series. They have given me the opportunity to show what I can do and I owe them a lot."

After Centurion he said that he cleared his mind and trusted himself. The last thing he wanted to do at Durban was just feather one negatively. That Collingwood was already there when he went out on Thursday was of immeasurable importance.

"We are lucky we have someone like Colly in the side who mentally is very solid. You learn from those guys like him and Straussy. They are very good to me behind the scenes too in the way they talk to me, they lead by example, I think. One of the great things about Thursday was that when you are playing with Colly, who has done it so many times, you are desperate to do it yourself. You really want to be that person who can save a Test match. You just want to emulate people like him."

And one day soon, perhaps, players will want to emulate people like Ian Bell.