England v Sri Lanka: Nice-guy Ian Bell deserves his Test milestone

England’s classiest batsman starts his 100th Test on Friday, a deserved landmark for a man who’s a delight to watch and know. Stephen Brenkley pays tribute to a master of his art

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The Independent Online

It might be the height of cheek to suggest that a batsman who has played 99 Test matches and averages 45 runs an innings should have done better. But here goes. Ian Bell should have done better.

Not world-beatingly, Bradmanesque better perhaps but better so that he averages into the fifties, the preserve of the greats, even those who have to make their way on English pitches. Take Bell’s two most recent Test innings at Lord’s.

In the first he was batting beautifully, in that sphere where sporting performance becomes art, Callas, Rembrandt, Fonteyn, that sort of highfalutin’ comparison that is tempting to make on a Thursday morning at the high theatre of cricket. He was caressing and stroking the ball much as he pleased when without warning he played with a slightly crooked bat, was beaten and given out leg before.

And then there was the second innings when he clearly thought that batting was so effortless that he drove at a ball shaping away and seaming back, and was bowled. Batsmen, lesser batsmen, make these kind of errors all the time, it is what makes the game.

But Bell ought to be above all that. He is technically impeccable and has the talent to go with it. That cover drive where anticipation and timing and footwork and bat speed all instinctively merge takes the breath away every time he plays it, often with his right knee on the ground and often reprising the shot because it pleases him and pleases us.

Over the years, he has been out in some flaccid ways. Who can forget the cut he essayed just before lunch at Kingston in 2009 which provoked the collapse to 51 all out immediately after it? For a short while, it looked fleetingly as though he might be washed up at 26. He addressed this as he stands on the verge of his 100th Test match.

“In 2009 when I got left out, in the winter in West Indies, I wondered whether I would get close to that,” he said at Headingley as he was invited to ponder the milestone. “That’s going to happen at times and you ask questions about yourself. The last 12 months, I feel I’m batting as well as I ever have in my career. 2009 was the turning point for me.”

Bell has been around a long time and for almost as long I have been on his case. He made his England debut at 22, 10 years ago but he was first called into an England squad as a gauche 19-year-old in New Zealand early in 2002. Over the years we have collaborated on many columns, most of the time being spent with him listening to where and why he is going wrong.

Occasionally, he has demurred but mostly he has listened, because he is the embodiment of politeness and patience. On Friday he will become the 60th cricketer and the 12th for England to play 100 Tests.

Unlike most players who reach such a milestone, especially those for whom a cricket career was pre-ordained, Bell shows no sign of weariness. He talks enthusiastically, for the moment, about finishing off his career with Warwickshire when his England days are done.

Perhaps that will be a stroll around the county circuit too far but more than any other contemporary player his tie to his county is one of unending affection. To talk of Bell and his beloved Bears is not merely to trot out one of the classic modern cliches.

It is too easily overlooked what a smashing fellow Bell is. In the early days it caused him no end of trouble at press conferences where he was almost too eager to please. Almost all (but not all) of the England players are approachable and personable but no matter the time of day or the state of his form, Bell will happily approach you. Not for him any of the aloofness of the modern, highly rewarded sportsman. Sometimes he slips under the radar.

A couple of years ago during a Test in Birmingham, I was having a dinner in one of the restaurants in the Mailbox with a couple of old friends who were at the match as spectators. Midway through the meal, Bell, who had been dining a few tables away, came over to shoot the breeze and he warmly shook the hands of my two companions. They were polite but unresponsive. “Who was that?” they asked as one of the great batsman of the age walked away.

It was absolutely in character that he paid tribute to the two people who have influenced his art more than anyone else. They were the late Neal Abberley, at Warwickshire, and Graham Gooch, at England.

“Neal Abberley is somebody who I wish could be here, but obviously can’t be,” said Bell. “He was somebody who was with me throughout my career and got me to where I am now. I still try to do things in the way we worked together. Goochie is probably as close as I’ve come to the same relationship I had with Neal.

“They saw the game very similarly and gave me a lot of honest feedback, which sometimes you need. You don’t just want people telling you what you want to hear – you need that honest criticism. They are always striving for more – I had a great relationship with both those guys.”

Bell was destined for England from an early age but when he first played it was probably too soon. Australia gave him a fearful working over in 2005 (though it is often overlooked that Bell made two crisp fifties in the thrilling draw at Old Trafford). Shane Warne dubbed him the Sherminator.

The doubts about him finally started to fade in his late twenties. At Durban in early 2010 he made a princely hundred that was responsible for England’s domination of the Test and in the next match at Cape Town he faced 213 balls while making 78 to help save it.

“My goal was always to try to play the tough innings,” he said. “On the South Africa 2009-10 tour, getting the 140 in Durban, and batting the day with Collingwood at Cape Town, gradually I started to understand what I needed to do to become a tougher Test cricketer. Last summer was probably the best I’ve played under that kind of pressure and hopefully that’s just the start now.”

 If he never does anything else with a cricket bat, his three hundreds in the 2013 Ashes will be testament to his skill. Without them, simply, England would have lost. The best, perhaps the favourite among his 20 Test hundreds was at Trent Bridge when on a dry, slow surface he played with grace and aplomb in equal measure. His late cutting on that third day, his easy determination to wait for the ball and bend it to his will was the work of a master.

No one speaks ill of Bell. He is the bloke in the dressing room that everyone likes, maybe even takes his placid, though mischievous, nature for granted. His persona also tends to mask a shrewd and cunning cricket brain. Though he is not perhaps a natural leader, there would be worse captains of England. There have been. After it all went so badly wrong in Australia last winter he made it his business to ensure the people knew he and Alastair Cook and the small cadre of other senior players would take this team by the scruff and shake it up.

He has scored so far 6,877 Test runs and there are plenty more where they came from. He could easily score 10,000. No one is ever going to sack him for misbehaviour, he is neither arrogant nor aloof and if he knows how good he is he wears it lightly. It is a pleasure to watch him and to know him.

Century duty: Bell joins ton-up club

Ian Bell should this week become the 12th England player to reach 100 Test appearances – four behind current captain Alastair Cook

A J Stewart 1990-2003 133

G A Gooch 1975-95 118

D I Gower 1978-92 117

M A Atherton 1989-2001 115

M C Cowdrey 1954-75 114

G Boycott 1964-82 108

K P Pietersen 2005-14 104

A N Cook 2006-present 103

I T Botham 1977-92 102

A J Strauss 2004-12 100

G P Thorpe 1993-2005 100

I R Bell 2004-present 99