Ian Bell: Breaking records by stealth
When Ian Bell became England’s all time leading run scorer in ODIs, while scoring a century against Australia in Hobart, I imagined cricket followers performing a sport-wide double-take. “He’s what? Bell? Is that right?” before making a mental note to themselves to check on statsguru when they got home and found a quiet moment with a computer.
The only Bell innings in an ODI that I have any sort of memory of (barring those in the current series) was at Southampton and it involved lots of lofted drives. I don’t follow ODI cricket with the forensic attention I pay to Test matches, but I would expect England’s leading scorer in the format to have made a stronger imprint on my memory. How then did Bell come to break this record and, other than the quantum of runs, how does his ODI record compare?
Bell’s first ODI was played in Harare in November 2004 – three months after his Test debut. He opened the batting with Vikram Solanki and scored 75 (115 balls) in a successful chase of 196. His most recent match, at Perth, was his 155th. Amongst batsmen, Bell is the third most capped English player – behind Paul Collingwood (197) and Alec Stewart (170). Quantity of cricket is clearly a large part of the answer to the question ‘how did Bell break this record?’ But my instinct is that Bell has not been an ODI regular over the last ten years.
Since his debut, Bell has played fewer than two-thirds of the 234 ODIs played by England. He has had two lengthy periods out of the team – Feb-Dec 2005 (16 matches) and Nov 2008 – July 2010 (33 matches) – as well as numerous ins and outs typical of a fringe player or of a Test certainty being rested between five day series. His longest continuous run of appearances is 35, from July 2007 to Nov 2008.
Bell’s first ODI century came in his 48th appearance. There have only been three more, but Bell has recorded the most scores of 50+ in ODIs for England: 36.
Two years ago I wrote about Bell, the Test batsman.
I have reconciled myself to Bell as a very good international batsman… he has reached the plateau of his level of accomplishment… I don’t expect him to dominate a major series or change the flow of too many contests… Bell is really very good and that is good enough.
Since then Bell distinguished himself as the outstanding batsman of the 2013 Ashes, recording three tons. It was a peak above the plateau, to which he seems to have returned. And as a Test batsman, Bell has always had one or other of Strauss, Cook or Pietersen as his senior. He is now the senior ODI batsman, yet I stand by my appreciation of his contribution from that earlier piece. He has rarely been dominant in ODIs. Of the top 30 ODI series run aggregates by England batsmen, Bell appears once, in eighth place – scoring 422 runs in a seven match series against India in 2007.
It might be helpful to place Bell amongst his peers. Of the 22 England batsmen with over 2000 ODI runs, Bell has the seventh highest batting average and eighth swiftest scoring rate. The players whose record Bell’s most closely resembles are Allan Lamb and Paul Collingwood, two of England’s most respected short-form batsmen.
In the ten year span of Bell’s international ODI career, 28 other players have scored 4,000 runs or more. Bell is in 15th place and has the third highest aggregate of those averaging under 40. Only two batsmen in this group have scored fewer hundreds than Bell.
The scatter diagram of batting averages and scoring rates shows Bell is in the lower half of the range for both measures. Graeme Smith and Mahela Jayawardene are the batsmen closest to Bell on the chart.
A number of factors have helped propel Bell to this record. He has stayed fit, physically and mentally, over ten grueling years of international cricket. He has maintained good relations with the England team management and, as pointed out to me by @ballsrightareas, avoided the sometimes career-shortening office of captain.
The gap at the top of the England batting order created by Marcus Trescothick’s exit from international cricket in 2006 has given Bell more opportunities than he would have had. Kevin Pietersen’s and Jonathon Trott’s absences have also created space for Bell. The curtailing of Trescothick’s and Pietersen’s careers prevented those two players, more suited than Bell to short-form cricket, setting a more stretching total runs record for England.
In this period, England’s selection policies have not been consistent. Bell may have suffered some omissions because of this lack of clarity about what the best team is. I suspect that is balanced by some of his recalls being down to the same inconstancy of selection.
On reflection, I don’t feel ignorant to have been taken by surprise by Bell’s recent achievement. He’s played a lot of matches, but many fewer than a leading exponent of this form of cricket would have done. He has a good ODI record, certainly by England standards, but not a great one. I will be surprised again if Bell’s future performances force me to alter that view.