The best is the enemy of the very good Bell
One of my favourite sights in cricket is Ian Bell rising to his toes, even airborne, as he glides a lifting delivery outside his off-stump through point for four. The shot appears to be no more than a push; its outcome is a ball racing past a cover point who has barely begun to adjust his position. It’s not one of the classic canon of off-side strokes – front, back foot drive, square or late cut – but a fusion that in foot movement, head and hand position remains splendidly orthodox. It’s a sharp riposte to the bowler who had delivered a potentially wicket-taking, lifting delivery outside off-stump with slips and gulley primed. Above all it’s a kinetic burst from simple, easeful movement.
At Manchester in 2006, I was in the crowd that saw Pietersen edge to slip in the first over of the second day. Collingwood and Cook ground away until afternoon when Bell brought the entertainment with a thrilling display of the shot that is even more commonly associated with him: the off drive. The Pakistani pace bowlers, seeking movement, bowled full. Bell stepped forward and with a crisp, truncated swing drilled half-volleys wide of mid-off. As he became more comfortable, he moved into good length balls with an intent that gave the bowlers hope of misjudgement, but as their hands raised he met the ball with a bat pitched perfectly to redirect the ball down and fast out and through the covers or straight.
At Lord’s in 2008 I had plenty of time to appreciate Bell’s batsmanship, watching him build a lengthy innings against South Africa. His partner in a stand of nearly 300, Pietersen, was taken aback by the range of his stroke-play from the start of his innings, from a point when England had lost three quick wickets. Into the evening session of day two, after eight hours, Bell lost his fluency. I left for an appointment while he was struggling to make headway through the 190s and heard the groan of the crowd from the St John’s Wood Road when he made a dash for his double-ton and fell caught and bowled. That evening, I walked into the pub where Bell, red-faced and proud, relaxed with a group of friends and team-mates.
Failing to convert a double-ton isn’t the strongest basis for criticism of a batsman. But Bell’s sudden impotence near the end of that day seems all of a piece with other petrifications and panics in his career. He suffered a pair at the Oval in 2005, when the proud efforts of the England team that summer were on the line. While Bell prodded from his crease and edged to slip in the second innings, Pietersen counter-attacked and led England to the draw they sought. Most recently, Bell’s charge at his first ball of the series in India to be caught at mid-off cemented doubts about his ability on turning pitches and more importantly provided evidence that he was conscious of this critique.
Nine of Bell’s 13 test hundreds have come in innings where a teammate has made a ton. Of his four stand-alone centuries, two were against Bangladesh and one in an innings with four half-centuries. The slight against Bell, implied in these numbers and stated outright by many, is that he is not the player for a tight situation – he doesn’t perform ‘in the clutch’.
Cape Town in January 2010 was supposed to be the occasion when Bell showed he could tough it out. For the second time in the series, England had to bat out more than a day to draw. Bell came in fifth down around half-way to England’s destination. He hung on for 68 overs and England clung on nine wickets down. But unlike other celebrated rear-guards – Collingwood at Centurion a month earlier and Atherton at Johannesburg in 1994 – Bell wasn’t there at the end. He fell three overs from the close, giving the tenth wicket pair, Swann and Onions, the task of seeing England to safety.
Bell’s international future was foretold in his teens. Indeed, he was still a teenager when called up as a replacement for England’s 2001/02 tour of New Zealand, although his debut waited another two years. His well anticipated excellence and pristine technique provide a template that has never quite coincided with his batting achievement. And then there’s the chap at number four (or in the 2005 Ashes, five, a place behind Bell). Pietersen the warrior batsman, taking on the world, including his own dressing room, scoring runs when they most matter, in the most eye-catching fashion. The enemy of our appreciation of Ian Bell, is the batsman we think he might have been and a batsman who is so different to him.
Questioning of Bell’s place in the Test team waxed again during England’s recent tour of India. Before the first test there were, quite reasonably, queries whether a player scheduled to miss the second test for paternity leave should be picked for the opening match. Either side of that return home, Bell had three cheap dismissals, including the self-inflected first baller at Ahmedabad. He coaxed England home to a small target in Kolkata before the lamest of dismissals pushing at Chawla the leg-spinner at Nagpur. But in the second innings, his partnership with Trott took England from a vulnerable 90-3 with one day and several hours left in the game to 302-4 with less than half a day to go. Bell remained not out with six hours 42 minutes of careful batting.
Bell’s century at Nagpur was crucial for the match and England’s series victory, but I do not believe it was a turning point for the player. I have reconciled myself to Bell as a very good international (Test and ODI) batsman. I believe he has peaked, or reached the plateau of his level of accomplishment. He’s a pleasure to watch and regularly capitalises on favourable situations from the late middle-order. I don’t expect him to dominate a major series or change the flow of too many contests and I know from time-to-time he’ll be flakey when what the team needs is grit. He would get a place at number five in almost all of the England teams I have watched in the last three decades. Bell is really very good, and that’s good enough.
There is an intriguing possibility that could, however, demand a thorough re-evaluation of Bell’s contribution. My recall of the situation is poor, but a few years ago Bell was captain of either Warwickshire or the England Lions, or possibly both. A cricket correspondent (not sure who) reported that Bell had led his team in the field and throughout the match in the most imaginative way – and successfully – quite at odds with England’s drilled approach. I am not sure where Bell currently is in the England captaincy succession. Alastair Cook, Bell’s junior, has begun his captaincy with notable success. Joe Root has been given princely duties as Lions Captain. But Andrew Strauss was never England’s first choice captain. It was events that had him elevated. Allying Bell’s batting record with a leadership role, however unlikely the latter, would make him bullet proof.
So I am comfortable with the Ian Bell of now having a continuing role in the England side. I think that’s the trick to enjoying his contribution and not being seduced by notions of what he might, but never really could, be. But in settling for this, we open up the possibility that the arrival of a steely middle-order finisher could force the selectors to decide whether the very good Bell is better for the team than a quite different alternative. The Australian selectors made just that kind of decision in 1992 when they stood down a player aged 31 with eleven test centuries and an average of 46. Dean Jones didn’t play Test cricket again.