The battle within that Bell must win
England's third centurion suffering by comparison with his peers as he tries to ally an outstanding talent to a diffident nature
Sunday 16 July 2006
Batsmen have been dropped the match after scoring a Test hundred. It happened to Ken Barrington and Geoff Boycott, two great men of England, who miffed the selectors by scoring slow centuries entering the realms of selfishness four decades ago.
It happened to Graeme Hick in slightly different circumstances when he made 107 against Sri Lanka in 1998 and was unwanted against Australia in Brisbane three months later. Not quite the same; a lot of water flows under the bridge in three months, especially since Thames Water were not wasting so much in those days.
This may be of small comfort to Ian Bell (what there is of it perhaps stemming from being in the company of such luminaries), who fashioned a craftsman's century on the second day of the First Test. If it lacked the pyrotechnics or the obvious grit that now seem to be demanded, it was achieved with admir-able orthodoxy in a shade over four hours, off 168 balls, with nine fours.
It was an old-fashioned construction - described variously as unobtrusive and anonymous, with some observers managing only out of politeness to avoid calling it plain bloody boring - and it was still quicker than the innings of the other centurions in England's first innings. Bell's strike rate was 59.52, Paul Collingwood's 56.7 and Alastair Cook's 37.63. It just did not seem like that, and in any case it could be argued that a No 6 coming in at 321 for 4 ought to be rattling away. It was also, unlike the other two, chanceless.
England will make much about what a jolly good show it is that their strength in depth is such that they can omit a player after scoring a century; for Andrew Flintoff, as irreplaceable as cricketers come, is limbering up for Old Trafford. It will still be tempting for some to ask where it has all gone wrong for Bell.
Had you been anybody else but Duncan Fletcher and suggested four years ago that Collingwood, or indeed Cook, since he was just past his GCSEs then, would establish themselves in England's Test team ahead of Bell, your inquisitors would have moved sharply on to the next question. A gilded path had been laid out for Bell since the age of 12 or 13.
He was outstanding throughout his adolescence, played in all the age-group representative sides, had elder statesmen purring over his technique. This fellow was going to play for England, and it was going to happen sooner rather than later. Everybody said so, and it might be worth remembering that similar paths had been laid out for Mark Ramprakash and, of more recent vintage, Chris Read, a wicketkeeping wizard from boyhood who cannot get a game under Fletcher.
At the beginning of the 2002 summer, Bell was hot favourite to make his Test debut. Virtually at the last minute the selectors discovered they could not make room for him. Unprecedentedly for an uncapped kid, he received an explanatory phone call from the chairman of selectors.
Bell has now scored three hundreds for England, but from the moment of the extremely handsome debut he eventually made against West Indies at The Oval in 2004, he has failed to cement his place. True, he was there throughout the Ashes, but he was deemed to be the one failure. The figures do not reject that assertion: there were two fifties at Old Trafford, but the pair in the deciding match at The Oval lingers longer.
Contrast this with Collingwood. He was never one of the chosen few up in Shotley Bridge, a nether region even in the North-east. He was an instant hit for Durham (but it was only Durham), and when he was plucked inspirationally from the county circuit to play for England he took ages to make a mark.
When he did he was viewed as a one-day player, the sort of bloke who could perhaps bat at two different paces and do a bowling job. All the time, Collingwood had another agenda. He wanted a Test spot. It helped enormously that he had Fletcher's support, but his own cussed nature helped more. He would not let the idea go.
It could be said that Collingwood has made the most of his talent and Bell has not. Some people claim to have noticed a flaw in Bell's method outside off stump, but the point that has been continually made is that he lacks presence. It is a point that has not escaped him, and as recently as last December in Pakistan he was prepared to confront it.
"That's what people have been saying: 'Stop walking out like a schoolboy and walk out, chest out, like you mean business'. With a presence," he said. But he cannot conceal a diffident nature. He brings it with him into the press conferences that he must endure and where he usually spends 10 minutes saying not much except how he longs to play for England. Asked the other night if he thought his personality told against him he denied it. "I just want to succeed and play for England. There has to be a way of finding the right balance between not putting too much pressure on myself and enjoying it," he said.
Collingwood and probably Cook would not say such things. They would not be asked the question. Collingwood's chin juts out permanently in a figurative way. He almost seems to be saying: "Come on, then, if you think you're hard enough." Cook is an unfussy player, acquisitive off his legs, with more leaves than on a country lane in autumn and a temperament to make an iceman seem flappable.
There is a case for saying Bell makes runs when nothing much can be expected of him: the 70 on debut when anything was a bonus, the runs in Pakistan when he had not originally been selected, this Lord's century when he replaced Andrew Flintoff.
A glittering career could still await. Bob Woolmer, who knows a thing or two about batting, was generous in his assessment after his 100 not out: "He oozes class." Class is permanent, but it is still not quite everything.
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