A FEW years ago, during a one-day international following England’s 5-0 Ashes drubbing in Australia, Ian Bell played a shot that got me thinking. Brett Lee was the bowler. Bell took a couple of steps down the pitch and offered a firm forward defensive. Nothing, in the words of Henry Blofeld, was done. But Bell just looked so calm, so cool, so totally in control. He appeared to have all the time in the world, like he could have hit the ball anywhere he chose.
Why then, I wondered, couldn’t he play like this every time? It’s a question that has puzzled greater cricketing minds than mine throughout Bell’s career. For every sublime innings, there’s a tame chip to cover. Every time he looks like he’s broken through, he will frustrate and infuriate with a sloppy dismissal.
But recently it seems like Bell is making the step up from very good to world class. He still has all the silky strokes he had when he broke into the Warwickshire side at the age of 19. But now he’s grown up and learnt how to fight.
His match-saving innings in the final test in New Zealand earlier this year was a brilliant example, and today’s unbeaten 95 – surely to progress to the first century of the series tomorrow – was another. Bell has had more than his fair share of critics over the years, and he seems to have been trying to prove them wrong ever since he made his debut.
Bell is now 31 years old, he has played 88 Test matches and scored almost 6,000 runs. The “Sherminator” jibes are a thing of the past, and yet there were still comments in the build-up to The Ashes – some of them from journalists who should know better – questioning his place in the team.
Bell is one of the best English batsmen of his generation. He may go on to be one of its best batsmen full stop. But something tells me he won’t be remembered as such. The enduring English Test players of my youth – Atherton, Stewart, Thorpe, Hussain, Vaughan – were all good players who had exceptional periods. Bell is more talented than all of them. He has benefited from the selectors’ faith – what the likes of Ramprakash and Hick would have given for the same. Now he is adding the steel, determination and grit to make him a world beater.
England fans love a moan. But they have short memories. In Pietersen, Cook and Bell we have three of the greatest batsmen this country has ever seen. They know when they’re in a scrap, and later in this series they will get the chance to really make hay.