It was hardly a fitting farewell to a Test career spanning well over a decade. Bamboozled by a spinning Shoaib Malik delivery, Ian Bell removed his helmet and rubbed his eyes before trudging disconsolately off the Sharjah square after another duck in England colours.
Sitting in the dressing room, he pondered a ninth score of either 0 or 1 in 24 Test innings in 2015 – the joint highest of any player in a calendar year.
It wasn’t a record he contemplated after opening his 2015 account with a supremely struck century against the West Indies in Antigua.
That hundred on the first day of the Test epitomised all that’s good about the most stylish English batsman of his generation. Bell’s form appeared the least of England’s worries in an Ashes year.
What followed was the stuff of nightmares. Bell scored just 12 more runs in four innings in the Caribbean and another 428 in 12 Tests. The axe inevitably fell before England’s tour of South Africa.
Since then, no member of England’s new look middle-order, with the obvious exceptions of Joe Root and Ben Stokes, has truly nailed down his place in Bell’s absence. So his hopes of a recall are nowhere near as distant as they seemed in November.
Refreshed after a four-month break, he went to the UAE this week as captain of an MCC side that proved more than a match for the county champions, Yorkshire. As a batsman of the highest class Bell has nothing to prove at the highest level. Perhaps his biggest challenge, though, will be to show England that he still has the desire to add to his 118 Test caps. That, he says, is not in doubt.
“The hunger is there to play, I’m desperate to do it,” says the Warwickshire captain. “The rest of the stuff is really out of my control, it will take care of itself. The desperation and the hunger to get back in that England side is there and now, for me, it’s about getting stuck into the Warwickshire stuff on and off the field.
“I’ve really enjoyed the pre-season with the lads and coming up with plans and doing lots of things that I haven’t had time to do in the past.”
Having made his debut aged 17 and been earmarked as a potential England star from an even earlier age, Bell has grown up in a centrally contracted era where players have spent far more time with country than county. Little wonder that, after almost 11 years of continual involvement with England, he heeded the advice to get away from it all this winter.
“I had a lot of good advice from Andrew Strauss and other people I trust, and the fact is that I had 12 years on the bounce with England’s first team, touring and playing cricket,” he says. “This was the first opportunity for me to really enjoy a family Christmas with my wife and my kids and everyone and not just think about cricket. Yes, I watched the odd ball but I didn’t try and get too engrossed in that.”
As his England place came under increasing scrutiny, Bell made it repeatedly clear that he had no regrets over an international career that has been highly successful. Only Wilfred Rhodes and Ian Botham have played in five Ashes-winning series, and the 33-year-old was a key member of the side that rose to No 1 in the Test rankings in 2011.
Little wonder that Warwickshire are proud to claim him as their own and no surprise that he’s now equally proud to captain the county that launched his career, albeit slightly earlier that he perhaps would have wanted to.
“That’s what I’ve always wanted to do. Is it a year or two earlier than I wanted? Maybe,” he says. “I’m still desperate to play for England but every time I go back to Warwickshire it’s all about giving back. I want to help the younger guys here, that’s my mindset.
“We’ve got a good bunch of lads and I’m really looking forward to it. Touch wood, if I can stay fit and my body stays good, which it does at the minute, I can play into my forties.”
Clearly an England recall is still near the top of his bucket-list but the meticulous technique which personified his approach to the game is already being put to good use as he looked to the future.
“Hopefully, in the the next three or four years as captain, I’m going to learn a lot about myself and what could potentially come after cricket as well,” he says. “I want to go into coaching, so this is a great lesson for me to learn from that perspective too.”
The only downside of spending so much time at home is that has been hard for Bell to get away from Aston Villa’s decline. “It hasn’t been easy,” he says. “I reckon they will have been relegated and promoted two or three times before I finish.” In contrast to the Villa roller-coaster, Bell will hope this season provides more highs than lows.Reuse content