There is a big seven months in store for England’s elegant but unloved middle order batsman: Two series’, ten matches, twenty innings and one big, sport-defining rivalry.
As a team, England tend to be judged on Ashes success (or failure) and by obvious association, so do English players. There are some whose Ashes heroics form the backbone of pre-concepted opinion – Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott still get described as ‘wearing bowlers down’ even when they’re going at run-a-ball hundreds in one day cricket, but on the plus side they have also forged a reputation as being reliable at the top of the order. For a bowling example, Chris Tremlett is probably not a million miles away from the England squad this summer based on his performance in January 2011, in spite of not doing anything in the two and a half years since. There are individuals who are remembered exceptionally fondly in spite of more average non-Ashes records – Andrew Flintoff is the obvious example of a man revered for his gladiatorial performance in 2005. Then there are those, unfortunate souls who’ve managed to not really do anything in Ashes competition.
The leader of this pack is one Ian Bell. Bell first came to the public eye in the same 2005 series as Flintoff; the timid Sophie to Flintoff’s irrepressible BFG. Whilst Flintoff’s personality dominated the summer, Bell paled by comparison and he never really got going. Serving to further highlight the contrast, the other emerging batsman in the series was a certain Kevin Pietersen; streaked hair akimbo, flat-batting 95mph deliveries straight back from whence they came, hooks out the ground, and not a ‘Sherminator’ nickname in sight. Bell on the other hand established a reputation for being a bit of a flaker, a wimp; when the going gets tough, Bell tends to find a way to return to the pavilion. This echoes through his career: that shot in Mumbai, for crying out loud, typical Bell!…
In subsequent Ashes series’ Bell has actually justified himself, most notably the (glorious) 2010-11 tour Down Under where he averaged a handsome 65. Yet somehow this went unnoticed as he conspired to be utterly outshone by the gargantuan combined feats of Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott. In spite of that series being in the middle of a 2 year patch of the purest purple for Bell (he racked up consecutive series’ averages of 44, 130, 72, 65, 331 and 84), for some reason he never managed to win the hearts and minds of England supporters with no notable ‘wow’ moments, ‘just’ a bog-standard run of sustained excellence.
Further elaborating on these ‘wow’ moments, one remembers sturdy and stout innings from Paul (the Wall) Collingwood which resulted in both saving matches and winning series for England. The similarities between the two players (ginger, pale, middle-order batsmen) only really serve to highlight the contrasts , Bell – elegant, talented, full range of shots; and Collingwood – the dour, crabby, stubborn prodder. If Bell flicks and caresses with an artful willow sabre, Collingwood poked and clubbed with a lump of wood. Yet in spite of an average scraping 40 (obviously lower than Bell’s not-to-be-sniffed-at average of 45+) it is Collingwood who has memorably saved games for England, not Bell.
At some level, this must grate on Bell. He is considered an established, senior player and expected to perform like one, yet never gets mentioned in captaincy terms. Apart from the peculiarly aloof Jonathan Trott the majority of the settled England squad have been touted at some point for leadership duties. Even Stuart Broad is considered to be ‘inner circle’!
This is an oddity: in his earliest years Bell actually drew comparison to former England captain Michael Atherton. Granted Bell was undoubtedly a gifted young bat, but he always had more strokes, more fluency and more natural ability than Atherton, whilst Atherton’s real strength was in his bitter defiance and backs to the wall grit in adversity rather than any natural, gorgeous fluency. I’ve also sourced this interview from back in 2002 where Bell speaks of Atherton in terms of being a role model. It was his captaincy in age range group cricket that really invoked comparisons. Otherwise the inference of Atherton being Bell’s role model doesn’t fit in the slightest; it is almost as though Bell was trying to convince himself that he possessed some of Athers’ inner steel – just as Don Quixote declared himself a knight.
The Ian Bell package has long contained such hot air bluster, with plenty of soundbites about “mental strength”, or “becoming more assertive” in practically every interview Bell has ever fielded. Which haven’t made any noticeable affect on the number of runs he has actually scored, obviously. As the man who never seems more than a couple of poor performances away from being dropped, the next 10 matches offer an opportunity to cement Bell’s place in the England set up for the twilight of his career. On the other hand at 31 Bell is of the age where being dropped might well see him never return, which wouldn’t altogether be seen as a great loss by every England fan.
The way a batsman is portrayed and thought of can be vital in terms of selection. Ask Nick Compton, dropped after two poor matches against New Zealand in favour of the younger, apparently more vibrant batsman in Joe Root who’d previously had a dire Test tour against the same country over three matches. Or if it came down to a choice between Compton and Johnny Bairstow, how much was the choice affected by Bairstow’s two plucky ‘characterful’ innings against South Africa last summer? Otherwise their Test records are nigh on identical – in fact Compton is the one with two Test hundreds to his name and has faced over double the amount of balls Bairstow has in spite of playing just one extra game. Like Bell, Compton isn’t an obviously self-assured, brash man. In fact he’s been written off in some quarters as being ‘too intense’, a perceived slight on his mental ability which doesn’t really mean anything, but will probably stick unless he gets his opportunity to prove it wrong at some point during the summer.
If Bell has a great Ashes either home or away, he could even establish himself as one of the good-not-quite-great players in English history: perhaps this England team’s answer to someone like Damien Martyn. It wouldn’t take a drastic improvement on his current Ashes record to achieve this – Bell has reached 50 twelve times against Australia in his 18 Tests against them and the Ashes ‘issues’ he has had stem from the conversion of those 50s into 100s (he has only managed to do this once). My prediction is that he’ll muddle along whilst looking technically perfect for periods, and then continue to get out easily when set. It’ll no doubt be frustrating at some points, but to put it another way Bell’s record is better than every Australian batsman bar Michael Clarke. Plus, that cover drive…