Ian Bell: Gifted batsman aims to fulfil his destiny

The choirboy looks are deceptive, and he has a message for Australia - he's a different player now. Stephen Brenkley talks to him

Something has changed in Ian Bell. He understands it, the people around him recognise it, the Australian cricket team may bear witness to it in the coming weeks. Put simply, Bell is being transformed from boy to man.

For most of his life his talent as a batsman has been plain. He was outstanding in all age-group cricket. The method was beautiful and orthodox, the runs flowed. It was never a case of if he would play for England but when.

But there is more to international sport than method, not least in the gladiatorial combat that is Test cricket. Sound judges fretted about Bell. He looked like a choirboy and the fear was that he would play like one.

A little worldliness helps at the rarefied levels of sport and Bell, virtually trained specifically to be a middle-order Test batsman, did not have it. Speaking to him over the last six or seven years and being impressed by his desire to fulfil his destiny, it was still always possible to reflect on the eternal truth of C L R James's arresting aphorism: "What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?"

But talking to Bell again last week, the change was patent. Those closer to him have also noticed it. Bell will be a better player because he can see what was lacking before. It is difficult to know, of course, precisely what effected the change: the realisation that he needed to change or the fact that he scored a bucketload of runs and changed anyway.

As he stands on the threshold of a second series against Australia, he is painfully astute about his first. "The last time I walked into an Ashes series I can say that I probably wasn't ready," he said. "I know that I had done everything I could to make them pick me, but having played West Indies and Bangladesh it possibly didn't make me 100 per cent ready for Test cricket. It's the whole thing that goes with it, the media, the full houses, everything is just a little bit different.

"Of course, it was great to play against Bangladesh and get runs but it didn't have the same emphasis as other Test matches. The summer of 2005 had a different level and it was something I had never come across before. I felt - more than anything I have ever felt - the public expectation.

"I had not proved myself properly at this level and there was a bit going on in my mind that I was going to be judged on this. Going into this Ashes series, I know I don't have to prove anything to anyone. I have scored the runs. That is a weight off my mind and there's a clearness now I have of how I can play when I am playing well.

"I am sure Australia will come at me just as hard. They probably recognise I have had some success in the last few months but they know that last time we played I didn't score as many runs as I should have or play as well as I can. I don't mind how they see me or how they want to come at me. I know that when they do, there will be a different player there.

"The experiences I have been through have definitely changed me, matured me as a person and as a cricketer. So I just need to go in there and not worry how Australia see me or what they think, or what anyone thinks really."

If all that sounds as though it had the air of a filibuster or was a scene from a psychologist's chair it was neither. Having been invited to do so, Bell was merely giving voice to the fact that he is more at ease with himself. There perhaps remains an edginess to the self-assessment but that is because he knows he still has it all to do against Australia. Until and unless that happens, any player would be edgy.

He will not be 25 until next April and his Test career of 18 matches can already be split into three or four parts. The first of these was before he played. He was summoned to New Zealand in early 2002 as cover for injuries. Although he did not play, it was widely assumed that his debut was imminent. So imminent and so predictable, indeed, that the following summer, when he was not chosen for his debut against Sri Lanka, the chairman of selectors, David Graveney, rang to explain the reasons. Bell was 20 and uncapped. It was unprecedented.

Eventually, he had to wait for more than two years for his debut. But when he was selected for the final Test of the 2004 summer against West Indies he immediately looked the part. The 70 he compiled at The Oval appeared imbued with authority and class. It was a false dawn.

Omitted from that winter's tour to South Africa, he was invited to fill his boots at home against Bangladesh in 2005. Duly doing so, the selectors were persuaded of his merits for the Ashes. They left out Graham Thorpe and stuck with Bell through the series.

There were two fifties in the drawn Third Test at Old Trafford but it was clear to the naked eye that the lad was not prepared for the cauldron. Wise counsel had suggested this over the years. Nick Knight and John Inverarity, captain and coach at his county Warwickshire, knew that the pleasant young man with the great gift was just that, a pleasant young man with a great gift. Knight, more than anybody, saw that Bell was not sufficiently detached and that his very earnestness would cause disaster. His Ashes ended with a traumatic pair at The Oval.

But in the winter he recovered well enough to be the leading run-scorer on England's difficult tour to Pakistan. But if a corner had been turned, he was not far enough round it to regain full selectorial faith. He was omitted for the first series of the 2006 English season against Sri Lanka. Andrew Flintoff's ankle injury allowed him in for the second series of the summer, against Pakistan, and he responded with hundreds in the first three Tests. They increased in fluency.

So impressive were these innings that last week Bell was named as the world's best emerging player at the International Cricket Council's annual awards. Although we are told that three batsmen, Bell, Alastair Cook and Paul Collingwood, are vying for two places against Australia in Brisbane, it is impossible to imagine that they would leave Bell in the dressing room this time.

"I hope I start as favourite to get in the eleven," he said. "After the last three or four matches, I would be disappointed to be left out but it can happen. I think I have made a significant improvement and have found a couple of things, a bit technical, a bit mental. I feel a different player, a bit tougher. There have been a few things for me to think about and hopefully they have made me a tougher cricketer."

In his 32 Test innings, Bell has already batted in all the positions from opener to No 6. If he starts against Australia it will be at No 5. He is by some distance the most classical of all England's current batsmen. There is a slight tendency still to flirt outside the off stump but some of his cover-driving is luscious.

"It's not so much about changing technique, it is more state of mind. If I have got things going on in my mind, that can affect technique. I feel a bit rushed. That's the angle I have improved on, because if I am playing well and with a clear head then the technique is fine.

"I have had talks with people in the England set-up and they felt I probably did take things a bit too seriously, wanting to score hundreds all the time. You have got to find the right balance rather than putting too much pressure on yourself."

It was the shortage of balance in Bell's approach to batting about which Nick Knight was particularly pertinent. Knight well understood three things: that the very nature of the game means that batsmen have to become accustomed to failure, that Bell would dwell on his failures and that would provoke other failures.

"When I came back into the England side in the summer, I wasn't putting too much pressure on myself," Bell said. "I was just going to go out and enjoy it. It is up to me now to understand why I was successful and to try and take that forward for the rest of my career.

"Maybe it's what I have heard Australians talk about, playing every Test match as though it is your last. Do not think of the next game or the one after, or what you want to average in the series. Have goals, yes, but remember it is this game, it is today. That relaxed me. Lucy, my fiancée, has definitely helped me because she is so relaxed and chilled out."

He claims, though not with ruthless conviction, that he is a generally relaxed kind of chap. "The balance wasn't quite right before. I am ready now. Australia will be hard but we know what to expect. We are prepared. We have got big-match players. When the big match comes round, they perform." There is the suspicion that Australia will shortly find out that Ian Bell is a big-match performer.


From prodigy to Aussie basher

NAME: Ian Ronald Bell.

BORN: 11 April 1982, Walsgrave on Sowe, Coventy.

VITAL STATS: 5ft 10in, 11st.

NICKNAME: Belly. ROLE: Right-handed batsman, right-arm medium-pacer.

COUNTY CAREER: Warwickshire 1999-current; first-class average 43.58, 17 x 100s, highest score 262no v Sussex, 2004; one-day avge 36.97, HS 137.

INTERNATIONAL CAREER: debut v West Indies '04; 18 Tests, avge 47.66, 5 x 100s, HS 162no v Bangladesh '05; 26 ODIs, avge 41.90, HS 88.

AWARDS: PCA Young Cricketer of the Year '04; MBE '05; ICC Emerging Player of the Year '06.

FAMILY TIES: Brother Keith, 22, plays for Cardiff UCCE, Warks 2nds.

Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Louis van Gaal would have been impressed with Darren Fletcher’s performance against LA Galaxy during Manchester United’s 7-0 victory
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Isis fighters travel in a vehicle as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province
Life and Style
fashionLatex dresses hit the catwalk to raise awareness for HIV and Aids
Life and Style
The veteran poverty campaigner Sir Bob Geldof issues a stark challenge to emerging economies at the Melbourne HIV/Aids conference
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and John Malkovich talk Penguins of Madagascar at Comic-Con
comic-con 2014Cumberbatch fans banned from asking about Sherlock at Comic-Con
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
filmGuardians Of The Galaxy should have taken itself a bit more seriously, writes Geoffrey Macnab
Caption competition
Caption competition
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

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform