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

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.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor