Ian Bell: Ring of confidence

After personal disappointment amid the glory of this summer, Ian Bell is determined to repay the people who kept faith in him

On his return to Warwickshire Bell broke the record for first-class runs in April, totalling 480 in four matches. His form carried over into two Tests against Bangladesh: unbeaten innings of 65 and 162 left him with a Test average of 297. A spell back with Warwickshire playing one-day and Twenty20 cricket was followed by the small matter of the greatest series in Ashes history.

Nine of the 10 players who appeared in all five Tests against Australia were no doubt grateful for the England management's instruction to rest after the Ashes in preparation for the departure this week for the winter tour of Pakistan, which will be followed by a series in India.

Bell, however, with England's blessing, went back to Edgbaston, where he played with a freedom which made him barely recognisable from the cautious young man who had struggled to amass just 171 runs in his 10 innings against Australia. In the final week of the season Bell smashed seven sixes in an innings of 137, his highest one-day score.

"It was good to get back to familiar surroundings and play under a bit less pressure," Bell said. "The bowlers and Jonah [wicketkeeper Geraint Jones] in particular obviously needed a complete break after what had been a very intense series, but I enjoyed getting back to playing for Warwickshire after all the hype and pressure.

"The last part of the summer, during the Ashes series, was probably the least amount of cricket that I've played. While I was playing five Test matches I might have played in eight or nine games for Warwickshire in that period, plus some one-dayers. It's not what I'm used to."

Bell, who has since spent two weeks on a beach in Mauritius and taken the chance to catch up with his football loves, Aston Villa and Coventry City, is as level-headed a 23-year-old as you could wish to meet. An Ashes summer like he endured would have torn through the confidence of some, but he appears to have emerged unscathed, determined to learn from his experience and to repay the faith of those who have stuck by him in selecting him for the Test series in Pakistan.

After scoring just 41 runs in his first four Ashes innings, Bell seemed to have made his breakthrough when he hit two half-centuries at Old Trafford. However, his four subsequent innings produced a total of just six runs. At the Oval, where he bagged a pair, he finished the series as he had started it, outfoxed by Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath; Warne took just two deliveries to dismiss him in the first innings, one more than McGrath needed in the second.

Bell knows he might have done better, but he has not been beating himself up over it. "There were times when I was disappointed personally, but generally that was overshadowed by the excitement of being involved in the whole thing," he said.

"To have played in one of the greatest series of all time was something special. I was thrown into a huge series. I've been out there. I've played. I've been through the initiation. I now have an idea of the areas of my game that I need to improve. Mentally, I know what it's about to play Test cricket, to play against Australia. I'd like to think that at 23 I've got quite a few Ashes series ahead of me to prove what I can do.

"Freddie Flintoff was a bit younger than me when he made his England debut, but Michael Trescothick and Michael Vaughan were 25 and Andrew Strauss 27. As a batter you're always learning and the experience that you get as you grow older is so important. It's almost more crucial than your technique. I'm learning on my feet all the time.

"Playing in an Ashes series and then travelling to Pakistan and India is about as tough as it gets. I'd like to think that come next April I will have learnt an awful lot about Test cricket, no matter how I do over the winter.

"Having said that, there's only a certain amount of time that they can stay with you if you're not scoring the runs, so I do feel a bit of pressure to do well. I know I have to perform to cement my place in the team."

Bell admits that the personal pressure might consequently be greater in Pakistan than it was in the summer.

"To be completely honest, at the start of the Ashes series I didn't expect my stats to be up there with the Haydens and the Langers, people who've played 70 or 80 Test matches. I just didn't expect to score as many runs as them, and so it proved. I knew that it would be a massive learning series for me."

The lessons began immediately. "Fielding close in, I had a front-row seat on the first day at Lord's. Steve Harmison was steaming in and in his first spell I think their top three batsmen were all hit. That was when I thought: 'Wow! This is what Test cricket is all about.'

"I could see straight away how tough some of those guys are: people like Langer and Ponting just took their knocks and carried on. But by the end of the day Glenn McGrath had struck back for Australia. It was some start."

Bell, who had never previously faced McGrath, was one of his five victims on that first day. "I'd been batting for a while and was feeling comfortable. I enjoy batting at Lord's. But McGrath found his rhythm and I'd never faced a ball that nipped down the slope as much as the one that got me."

His second-innings dismissal by Warne, whom he had previously faced only in a county one-dayer, was potentially more traumatic. Bell failed to read Warne's "slider" and was out leg before without playing a shot.

"Even now I can remember balls that pitched on the same line that spun - and spun big," he said. "That one didn't. I'd been at the crease for a little while, my concentration was high and I was feeling good, but then we had a break for drinks. Maybe I relaxed or lost a bit of concentration."

Bell had been looking forward to the second Test at his home ground but was dismissed third ball in his first innings and unluckily given out caught behind in the second just as he was finding his feet. However, he played his part in the last-day drama, restricting Brett Lee to a single with a smart piece of fielding to give Steve Harmison the chance to dismiss Michael Kasprowicz and seal England's two-run victory.

At Old Trafford, Bell again showed his fielding prowess with a superb catch to dismiss Justin Langer, while two stylish innings (he even found time to hit McGrath back over his head for six) helped put England in command. "Old Trafford was the highlight of the summer for me. I felt that I had shown what I could do. I really wanted to kick on from there and play well at Trent Bridge and the Oval. When I look back over the summer, what happened after Old Trafford was the big disappointment for me. If I'd just got two more fifties it would have been an OK summer for me."

There were occasions earlier in his career when Bell was preoccupied with a fear of failure, which led to John Inverarity, his county coach, telling him to be more positive and aggressive at the crease. He acknowledges that there were times against Australia when he may have been similarly overcautious.

"Starting my Test career was a bit like when I started playing for Warwickshire, albeit at a much higher level," he said. "You need to make an adjustment, to find your confidence. When I play for Warwickshire now there's no fear of failure. I feel positive.

"Maybe playing for England put me back to where I was when I started playing for Warwickshire. It's not that I don't feel confident when I go out to bat for England, but in wanting so much to do well there can be a tendency to play a bit within yourself, rather than just going out and playing."

Bell knows that under previous England regimes he might not have lasted the summer, but says there was never any point when he was made to feel his place was under threat.

"The fact that the selectors, captain and coach all kept faith with me through the series gave me great confidence," he said. "They could easily have gone for someone with a bit more experience, but they stuck with me. I just hope I can repay that faith in the near future."

Bell epoch: Test batting record for England

Test career statistics:

Matches: Eight. Runs: 468. Highest score: 162 not out. Average: 42.54.

2004

West Indies (Fourth Test, Oval: England win by 10 wickets)

Scores an impressive 70 on debut as England complete 4-0 series victory.

2005

Bangladesh (First Test, Lord's: England win by an innings and 261 runs)

Unbeaten 65 helps England to a crushing victory.

Bangladesh (Second Test, Chester-le-Street: England win by an innings and 27 runs)

Excellent 162 not out takes his Test average to 297.

Australia (First Test, Lord's: Australia win by 239 runs)

Dismissed for six and eight in first and second innings by McGrath and Warne respectively.

Australia (Second Test, Edgbaston: England win by two runs)

On his home ground hits his first ball for two, his second for four and his third into the wicketkeeper's hands. Caught behind for 21 in second innings when TV replays indicate he did not make any contact.

Australia (Third Test, Old Trafford: match drawn)

Makes classy 59 and 65 in supporting roles for century-makers Vaughan and Strauss.

Australia (Fourth Test, Trent Bridge: England win by three wickets)

Scores three in both innings, edging a pacy delivery by Tait and then top-edging a hook off Lee to fine leg.

Australia (Fifth Test, Oval: match drawn)

Dismissed for a pair, trapped lbw by a straight delivery from Warne and then edging McGrath to slip.

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