'That's why he is the best, he makes things happen'
Monday 03 December 2007
In a single direct, heartfelt sentence, Ian Bell captured the torture of facing the best bowler in the world. It was not about turn, or dip, or swerve, or the blur of the corkscrew wrist, or the wild, bulging eyes staring at you. It was not technical stuff, it was about the sheer, dreadful inevitability of being out there and wondering what the hell to do.
Whoever said it is a batsman's game and it is was not factoring in Muttiah Muralitharan in his home country on his home ground. "What I have learned from playing Warne and those guys," said Bell, "is that if you just try and survive they're going to get you out eventually anyway." By those guys, he meant one guy because there are only two: Shane Warne and Murali, champions of a generation, of any generation.
For more than three hours, Bell had been out in the middle. When he was not facing Murali, he was probably thinking about facing Murali. Nobody else in Sri Lanka's attack looked like taking a wicket, Murali looked like doing nothing else.
Bell made 83, easily England's highest score, but he knew when he left the crease he was going to get it in the neck. He and his captain had put on 107 when Vaughan was out, caught off pad and bat at silly point. It looked a dubious decision, but, in the 37 balls he faced from Murali, Vaughan put an incontrovertible case for batting euthanasia. If Aleem Dar, one of the best umpires in the game, made a genuine mistake in giving him out he was also merely unplugging the life support machine to which Vaughan had been attached for long enough.
From then on it had to be Bell. He was on 67 and he needed to go on for England to retain realistic aspirations of building a lead of beyond 100. He did not and his regret was clear. He seemed to recognise that 83 or not, he was in line for the blame.
"When you get in on these kind of wickets it's important you go on and get big scores," he said. "Obviously I'm disappointed I didn't do that. That's why he is the best bowler in the world, he makes things happen." He repeated it as if in self-reproachment: "The important thing is when you do get in you cash in."
Bell had got out trying to attack, though his miscued drive off an inside edge, ended up being neither one thing nor the other. That is Murali's game. There is no physical threat from him but men may be damaged forever by playing him.
True, he has just come back from Australia where in two Test matches, he took four wickets for 400 runs in 116 overs. But that was Australia, and this is Kandy, his old school ground, where he used to bowl for Trinity College as a boy. He needed five wickets to break the world record and he meant business.
Bell, who is a lovely batsman with the potential to be a great one, was determined not to be intimidated. He was desperate to impose himself on the proceedings in general, on Murali in particular.
"The thing I have learned in my short career so far against spin is that I want to play my game, use my feet and be as positive as I can in defence as well as attack," he said. "It's watching the ball, trusting myself. It's a matter of trying to get the singles. Looking to score off every ball is a positive, it doesn't have to be a four or a six, but that's the way I think you play top spinners."
Try as he might to look assured, Bell faced 31 balls from Murali. He struck one four over mid-on, one three and three singles. He failed to score from 26 balls. That was hardly his fault and there were times he looked assertive in keeping it out, elbow high, bat straight. But it would have definitely been on his mind when he was out. He wanted to stamp his authority, so he had to play an attacking shot.
Murali had to be content by the close with a share of the world record, 708 wickets, level with Warne. Maybe it is entirely apposite that the two great slow bowlers of the age, leg spinner and off spinner, shared the record for a few hours, at least overnight.
How Murali must make it easy for a new coach. Trevor Bayliss, from a New South Wales, was a mildly surprising choice to succeed Tom Moody in the job. He knows what he has inherited, as he observed later, a great bowler who can change the game at any time.
At any time, and England played as though they knew it and that any time would indeed arrive.
Shot of the Day
You have to admire the cheek and bravery of Kevin Pietersen. Most batsmen would be happy just to survive when facing Muttiah Muralitharan, but not our Kevin. He has to take matters a step further and he did just that when he reverse-swept Muralitharan for four. Pietersen was in total control of the shot and it never left the ground after hitting his bat.
Ball of the Day
The pitch in Kandy now has very little in it for the seamers, but it is offering ever more spin for the slow bowlers. Muralitharan rarely bowls a bad ball but one of his best was a doosra to Paul Collingwood. It did not take a wicket but the way in which Collingwood looked down the pitch, after watching the ball pitch and spit past his outside edge, told everyone it did not do the expected.
Moment of the Day
Sri Lanka's fielding was excellent throughout the day. It was sharp, energetic and it prevented England ever getting away. The effort was summed up by a brilliant catch by Chamara Silva to dismiss Ian Bell for 83. Bell must have thought that he was about to move on to 84 when he clipped the ball in the direction of wide mid-on but Silva dived full length to his left to take a superb one-handed catch.
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