Ian Bell: 'I could just play cricket for the reason I started playing it - because I enjoyed it'

A winter abroad finally helped the boy wonder of English batting become a man. Stephen Brenkley hears how he grew up
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The Independent Online

At last, Ian Bell has the opportunity to meet his destiny. He was fated to bat for England. As a small boy it became his heart's desire. From the age of 13, he gave it credence by playing prodigiously for five successive national age-group sides. He was invariably the name on the lips of reliable judges, perhaps whispered because they dare not tempt providence, but still clearly articulated. Bell was not bull.

At last, Ian Bell has the opportunity to meet his destiny. He was fated to bat for England. As a small boy it became his heart's desire. From the age of 13, he gave it credence by playing prodigiously for five successive national age-group sides. He was invariably the name on the lips of reliable judges, perhaps whispered because they dare not tempt providence, but still clearly articulated. Bell was not bull.

The initial impact he made and the flattering notices he received on his entry to senior cricket - six years ago now - seemed certain to transport him to heady places quickly. Then, for a little while, the game, which had mostly come easily to him through his teenage years, turned round and bit him.

After being almost picked for the First Test of the 2002 summer (the chairman of selectors rang him to say how close he had been), Bell began to struggle. There was to ensue brief concern from some of the same reliable judges that providence was about to have a high old time. The young man himself worried. And worried and worried. About his game, about getting out, about how to avoid getting out, about cricket and only cricket.

An Australian and Australia sorted him out. Bell spoke of this seminal turn of events to this newspaper last November, and so significant was it that he was still mentioning it last Friday after being picked by England for the First npower Test of the summer.

On Thursday at Lord's he will play his second Test as part of England's middle order, and such was the competition for this one place and so confident must the selectors be that he is now ready that the obvious conclusion is that he is expected to stay around awhile. It can now be seen that the selectors were dead right to overlook him in 2002, but what a near thing it was.

In the summers of 2002 and 2003, Bell's county batting averages were respectively 24 and 30, the sort of form that might lose you a Warwickshire contract instead of winning an England one. His county coach and former Australia Test player, John Inverarity, advised him to spend a winter playing club cricket in Perth, Western Australia. If this was important, it was matched by Inverarity's decision to ensure that the fading young prodigy had to fend for himself.

"I always believed I was a decent player but it was like chasing your tail in a way, a never-ending thing I couldn't get out of," said Bell. "It took me to get out of county cricket completely and go to Perth. Wherever I'd been to play cricket before there was a kind of tag attached to me, but in Perth nobody knew who I was and I could just play cricket for the reason I started playing it - because I enjoyed it."

In short, in those few months in Perth, Ian Bell grew up. He is still, it should be reported, only 23. But there was more to it, as Inverarity calculated, than playing some relaxed cricket. "Invers put me in contact with the club but he could have done a lot more for me, and I couldn't understand why he wasn't helping me, helping me to get accommodation or a car with his connections. Now I know why.

"I returned to England and everything seemed to come back. I had probably overdone my technique, over-analysed myself. The fear of failure and the frustration of not getting runs had all gone away."

The upshot was a season of continual splendour: 1,714 runs, fifth (and the second Englishman) in the first-class averages. At one point he scored four hundreds in five innings and the fifth was 96 not out. Picked for the final Test of the summer when Graham Thorpe was injured, he made 70 and exuded composure and class. At the crease he simply looked as though he knew what he was doing.

Subsequently, he was overlooked for the winter tour Test squad and ended the trip out of the one-day side. But he went on from there to lead the England A side in Sri Lanka, making a sizzling hundred in their first win over Sri Lanka. The start to this season has been seamless.

A couple of grafting half-centuries (96 and 63) were followed by 231 against Middlesex at Edgbaston. He now holds the odd but proud record of scoring more runs in England in April than anybody - 480. The selectors were persuaded.

Unfortunately, when the team to play Bangladesh at Lord's was announced he was somewhat overshadowed by the omission of Kevin Pietersen, the one-day wonder from South Africa who has been kept waiting to claim a Test place. In fact, Bell replaced Robert Key.

"We were playing on some good pitches at Edgbaston and I knew I needed some early runs," he said. "I put myself in a good position with the amount of runs. I sort of handed it over to them by saying, 'Look, I can't do any more, there you are' but I also recognised there was a lot of competition for places, which is obviously good for the team. It was out of my control, but now I've been given the first chance that everybody was desperate for, it's in my hands. I won't be treating Bangladesh lightly in any sense. I will play them as if it was Australia."

Bell is an affable, eager-to-please, earnest young man, earnest about his game, earnest about life. He pays keen, sincere respect to those who have helped him. When he spoke of Inverarity's singular influence he also made mention of Bob Woolmer, his former coach at Warwickshire. Woolmer went to see him at Hove the other week en route to the West Indies with Pakistan. Nor is Neil Abberley, who has watched him all his batting life at Warwickshire, ever far from getting mentioned.

Bell has a natural talent for hitting a ball but he is aware of how much that has been nurtured. He has never been loath to work on his game and, as he observed, it is just possible that he became too obsessed with it. "I've worked on a few areas in the last two years and gradually and slowly I'm getting the faults out," he said. "They are slight things which give bowlers areas to bowl at.

"Just outside off stump I can get a bit squared up, and the important thing is to make sure they don't creep back into your game when you're under pressure. I look remarkably different as a batsman from a year ago in terms of my shapes."

Remarkably different too as a chap. Bell was round-faced, puppy-fatted and spotty when he was first being interviewed (six years ago, when he was part of the first National Academy intake). Now his features are almost sculpted and he is fashionably unshaven, though the eyes still look to be full of innocence.

Technically, then, he is unquestionably ready. The selectors have taken a punt on his being prepared to cope with the extreme mental demands of Test cricket, those imposed by Australia rather than Bangladesh. His county captain, Nick Knight, has mused on the topic before, discussing the importance of coping as a cricketer off the field, in a way of dealing with inevitable failure. Knight, who knows Bell as well anybody, might have kept him waiting another year. Bell said: "I completely understand what Nick's saying. It's not just your batting, it's your maturity in everything you go about. From a year ago, I'm a different person. That winter in Australia made me a different person in a way but I can see Nick's point of view. You want to start your Test career when you're ready and you don't want to go back to county cricket. I want a Test career."

Unless England fiddle with their order again, Bell seems likely to bat at three, the heir to players such as Wally Hammond, Ken Barrington, Ted Dexter, David Gower and the man who has batted there more often than anybody for England, Mark Butcher. Indeed, Butcher, with 45 trustworthy Tests as first wicket down, may yet have something to say about Bell's occupation of his position if his wrist injury ever deigns to speed its recovery.

Bell was astute enough to point out that while he has been picked before several other good players, he was still, after a fashion, filling the place of an injured man. But it is up to him. Runs against Bangladesh and he stays to play Australia. Then it becomes slightly more complicated. Succeed and he has a job for life, fail and he merely follows so many of recent vintage.

But the selectors think they have spotted something. If it works, they had better drop a thank you note to Inverarity.

"He's been a mentor, not just with batting," said Bell. "Especially when things haven't gone well, he's reminded me that there is a lot more to life than cricket." And if Bell truly believes that, it might just be the signal that he is indeed ready.

Biography: Ian Ronald Bell

Born: 11 April 1982, Walsgrave, Coventry.

Plays for: Warwickshire, England.

England career: Tests (one match, v West Indies, The Oval 2004; scored 70 off 130 balls, took two catches).

One-Day Internationals: eight matches. Debut v Zimbabwe, Harare 2004. Total of 189 runs (highest score 75) at average of 31.50. Has also taken two catches.

Awards: NBC Denis Compton award 1999, 2000, 2001; PCA Cricketer of the Year 2004.

Also: once described by Dale Hadlee (brother of Sir Richard) as "the best 16-year-old I have ever seen".

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