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.
Drafted in for the Final, I was to open the batting. We bowled first and as we left the field, having conceded the highest score of the five innings played that day, the Skip said, “I want Dav to open, you’ll be three.” Dav’s opening partner, our Mr October, set off at a gallop, putting us ahead of the asking rate. As he neared his retirement – on scoring 30 – the Skip turned to me: “I want to keep this momentum up. Briggsy’s in next.” Briggsy delivered and the Skip tapped our opening bowler, cricketer of pedigree, on the shoulder and said, “Get your skins on GB.” Out GB strode when Briggsy topped 30. Dav fell with the target in sight. The Skip stood up. This was a chance to wipe out the memory of his final over in last year’s semi-final – 13 runs conceded and a final ball defeat. “You’re next whatever happens,” he said before marching onto the field.
What did happen was two very fine cricketers eased us home with two overs to spare, the Skip making the winning run. He apologised to me – I hadn’t had a knock that day.
After two league title winning seasons, juggling a team of very uneven talents, the Skip had seen a chance to win something meaningful. Five batsmen, all my superiors, were our best chance of chasing down the total and were sent in ahead of me, with several cannier operators following. I backed the Skip’s decision not only because it brought us the trophy – the only cricket trophy some of us have had a sniff at – but because it showed the agile thinking that eludes cricket teams. That day I raced in earnest the hobby horse that I so often ride for leisure. Where Benaud had his front-foot no-ball law, Boycs has covered pitches, the subject I bang on about is: why are teams so inflexible with their batting order, in innnings, matches and even whole series?
Above all, it’s the England cricket team who have seemed afraid of upsetting the scorecard printers by sending in their batsmen out of order. There is an exception, itself controversial, the nightwatchman. But even that tactic appears to be employed inflexibly.
For long periods of the last thirty years, England have found the number three spot problematic. Pundits have explained the difficulty of finding a player who is equally able to take strike to the second ball of the game or after a double century opening stand. The real problem lies not in finding a player to fit this bill, but in making this the person specification. The England of 2011, best Test side in the world, have Trott at three, with Pieterson and Bell to follow. Trott, recently named ICC player of the year, is the ideal candidate for the early loss of an opener. In his current form, he thrives whenever he comes to the wicket, but is it in the team’s best interests for him to bat if the openers have lasted a session and the opponents are deploying their third and fourth change bowlers? Another player is more likely to capitalise on the situation and turn an advantage into control of the game.
A defence of the inflexible batting order is that batsmen need to know their role. Ok: “Trotters, overs 1-25, you’re in three. KP, you’re the man if Chef and Levi are still there at over 26 onwards.” In fact, the inflexible batting order can lead to batsmen being less able to play a role suited to their strengths. I suspect, this whole argument is fallacious. What we are really dealing with is individual pride and prestige. Why else was Collingwood persisted with at five in the Ashes, when Bell’s fluent innings kept getting cut short batting with the tail at six?
How far could this approach of a flexible batting order be taken? I had my first taste of club cricket, playing for a hard-drinking village Sunday XI under the captaincy of Gill, a Popeye-shaped builder, and unorthodox leader. One month he got into his head that we should capitalise on having two left-handed batsmen, one of who was me, in the top-order. Gill sent a lefty and righty out to open and said to a right-handed colleague and me that the former was to go in at three if the righty was out and me if the lefty fell first. What happens, I asked, if my fellow southpaw bats through? Am I at number eleven? Gill said he’d get back to me on that.
There are limits to how flexible the batting order should be. The potential is found in scenarios that are forseeable, of which I list a few below. First though, a danger. In baseball, when I last followed the sport closely in the early 1990s, the following often happened. In the late innings, a right-handed starting pitcher, beginning to tire and due to be facing one of the opponent’s most effective right-handed batters would be replaced by a left-handed relief pitcher. Once this pitcher had warmed up, the batting side would counter by pulling their batter from the game and sending in a left-handed pinch hitter. What seemed to drive this series of moves was ‘the numbers’: lefty batters have better stats against lefty pitchers, similarly righty batters prosper against righty pitchers. Probability, dressed up as flexibility, isn’t the answer (however, I have enjoyed international teams bringing on their slow left-arm bowlers the minute Pieterson appears at the wicket.)
Taking the current England team as the example, here are three Test match scenarios, to add to the first wicket down situation, where some flexible thinking could make (even) better use of the available talents.
- England lose their sixth wicket to a swinging delivery in the third over of the second new ball. Instead of bringing in Broad or Bresnan to partner the last front-line batsman, send out Anderson, England’s nightwatchman, to see the shine off the new ball and holding back the more attacking lower order batsmen until the bowling is less of a threat.
- A slow left-armer or leg-spinner has cut through the England middle-order, turning the ball away from the bat. Instead of exposing Prior and Bresnan, who would be vulnerable to the same kind of dismissal as their teammates, send out the left-handed Broad to disturb the bowler’s rhythm and attempt to shift the momentum of the innings.
- A long partnership, in place since the start of play, is progressing deep into its fourth hour. The next batsman in will have been sat, padded up, concentrating and burning nervous energy. Why not stand him down for half an hour to freshen up, with the next but one batsman moved up one place until the scorecard order can be reinstated?
Cricket is a unique blend of individual endeavour in a team environment. Loosening the grip of the scorecard batting order may strike at the pride of some batsmen in the interests of the team, yet also allow more individuals to play the game in situations to which their strengths are best fitted.