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
Sunday 12 November 2006
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.
LIFE & TIMES
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.
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