Bell's burden of ringing endorsement

Stephen Brenkley meets a modest youngster with a mighty talent
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The Independent Online

He has a fresh, open face dotted all over with freckles. His frame is slight, though not slender, the hands are small with a tight grip. The shoulders are slightly sloping, but they will need to be the strongest part of all. On them rests a good deal of the future of English batting.

He has a fresh, open face dotted all over with freckles. His frame is slight, though not slender, the hands are small with a tight grip. The shoulders are slightly sloping, but they will need to be the strongest part of all. On them rests a good deal of the future of English batting.

Everybody who has seen him has good, optimistic words for Ian Bell, which may be mildly tinged with desperation. Bell is 18 and has scored runs at every level he has batted so far. He has been so accomplished, indeed, that he has missed out a couple of age groups.

Bell first held a bat in anger at nine, scored his first hundred at 11, his best (so far) at 16 in the searing heat, both literal and metaphoric, of an international. He has balance, footwork, timing, reflexes.

Before anybody jumps to conclusions, hangs out bunting and puts in an advance order for the Best Innings of Bell video there should be a counsel of caution. He made a duck on his County Championship debut for Warwickshire as a 17-year-old late last summer (on an appaling pitch) and when he went to the Under-19 World Cup earlier this year as one of England's shining stars he scored 41 against the might of the Americas team and was then out early in five consecutive innings.

There is, then, a little way to go, but this does not diminish the view that he has what it takes. In the next month he will represent England Under-19s, against a skilful Sri Lanka side, for the last time. He will open the batting, and while this match's influence on the rest of his career may be minimal, the burden of expectation is in place. If England, who have picked their strongest squad, are to win, Bell almost certainly has to score runs.

Regardless of what happens now, Bell, at least, talks not of if but of when. He is reserved and diffident to a degree infrequently seen in talented teenaged sportsmen, and while he does it quietly he has set out his targets. "My immediate aim now is to get in the Warwickshire first team," he said. "I would like to do it this season and then get picked for an England A tour. I haven't set myself anything beyond that because that's probably enough. But I don't want to be waiting around for each stage to arrive, I want to get used to the different pace of each new level. I would like to make the most of it while I'm young."

He spoke these words so softly and seemed so retiring that it was imperative to tell him that it is a tough old world out there in the middle, and he had better not think shyness and old-fashioned English reserve would get him through, or that modestly averting his eyes from the gaze of the next Glenn McGrath might help to do the trick. His team-mates in Warwickshire's second XI at Bristol the other day said there was no need to worry.

With those whom he knows - and do not forget that being 16 in a side of 18-year-olds could have been fairly forbidding - he is apparently something of a japester. He denied this quietly. But in the crease his mien changes.

He is not ruffled, he can stare with the best of them and he is endlessly resilient. It is said that when he was in New Zealand the winter before last and made scores of 91 and 115 in two of the three Under-19 Tests, he was the subject of abuse from some unprepossessing Kiwi bowler whom he had just dispatched to the boundary. "What do you think you're doing, sonny?" the tall Kiwi said, it is reported by observers deleting the many expletives. "Hitting you for four," came the reply, and Bell returned to his mark. That is the steel required of batsmen.

It is instructive that Bell's cricketing heroes are Michael Atherton and Steve Waugh. No two players of the modern era have had such toughness upstairs or such transcendent ability to get on with the job, regardless of how much they play and miss, or that the bowler is not inviting them to tea next Sunday.

"I don't worry about my technique too much," said Bell. "I work on it, and Neal Abberley at Warwickshire has been fantastic for me since I first started there at 11. But it all seemed to fall into place very naturally."

Tim Boon, coach to England Under-19s, said: "He has a huge amount of ability. He has good balance, he uses his feet well, he can manipulate the ball for position and he can hit the ball. He didn't do well in Sri Lanka earlier this year, when his footwork against the new ball suffered. Maybe it was just one of those things, but maybe Ian needed to know what failure is like as well."

Failure was not something with which he had become familiar. His balance and rhythm also make him lovely to watch. He has panache. It was clear from an early age that he also liked scoring runs. It was not enough for him to get to a hundred, he wanted to go on.

In New Zealand 18 months ago he came first to international attention. The 91 he made in the First Test was eye-catching enough, but Bell still holds dear the 115 in the Third. The heat demanded levels of concentration and determination he had not hitherto been required to reveal. "That innings in Alexandra is the one I'm most proud of," he said.

It also prompted Dayle Hadlee, New Zealand's coach, to describe Bell as the best 16-year-old he had ever seen. Such labels can terminate careers. But it is a measure of what he possesses.

Bob Woolmer, the Warwickshire coach, has not picked him for the first team this season yet, but the way he talked it is only a matter of time. "I want to get him in, I'd like to see some runs first."

Bell's young life - and he is some slip fielder as well - has revolved around cricket since it was clear that the footballing talents which had led him to Coventry City's school of excellence were not quite enough to take him further. He has never been academically inclined, but while university was probably never an option and did not feature in his plans he was shrewd enough to stay on at school for his A-levels this summer. He awaits the result of his examinations in geography and PE. "I know there has to be a life away from cricket, and school and my friends there provided it," he said. "But now I'm a cricketer full time. It's what I want to be."

It is a close-run thing as to who is more anxious for the freckle-faced kid to grow into a man and be that cricketer: him or us.