THE obituaries, whenever they come, may begin in similar fashion. Born in the West Midlands in the 1980s and brought up in Birmingham, he developed a love of cricket at a young age. A determined individual with a baby-faced complexion, his worst enemy was his own self-doubt. It turns out Ian Bell and I have a few things in common. Unfortunately that’s where the comparisons end. Bell is now the 12th man to play 100 Test Matches for England. At the time of writing, I haven’t even played one.
Every cricket lover has a few heroes, but die-hard fans develop much deeper and more complex relationships with the men in the middle. Bell made his first class debut at the age of 17, three years older than me, as Warwickshire began to emerge from an almighty hangover following the champagne-drenched success of the mid-90s. It was clear that Bell had all the talent, but in a narrative that would become familiar to England fans a decade later, it was a frustrating beginning. I would sit in the members’ stand at Edgbaston watching him compile the most technically correct 20-odd before nicking a length ball outside off stump to the keeper. It became a bit of a running joke, almost as if he was embarrassed to possess so much talent and didn’t quite know how to use it.
As Bell became established the inevitable England calls came, but he never seemed to rack up a huge weight of championship runs, relying more on his potential. Praise offered to youngsters early in their career can often end up as an albatross – in a quote so often cited that it may not even be accurate, the one and only Dayle Hadlee said Bell was “the best 16-year-old I’ve ever seen.” If Dayle has not dined out enough on tales of backyard cricket with younger brother Richard, the bars of Christchurch will surely echo to the tune of ‘I told you so’ long after Bell finally hangs up his pads.
Our man shuffled nervously on to the international stage in 2004 and endured a well-documented struggle in the following summer’s Ashes, a timid new boy in the playground, out-thought and out-fought by the big bad Australian bullies. Many things would have been different if England had lost that series, not least that Bell may have disappeared back into the Edgbaston shadows like so many before him. Jim Troughton, anyone?
Over the next few years I grew up, morphing from a timid teen into a slightly less timid 20-something. University, the clichéd move to London, the first office job, the burgeoning relationship. I followed Bell’s progress from afar as he went through his own growing pains, glad that I didn’t have an army of angry fans venting their spleen online every time I slipped up.
So much of what I saw in the development of Ian Bell, I saw in myself. The puffed-out chest, the ill-conceived attempt to grow a little beard; transparent attempts to become a man, to impose himself on a world which was scary but which he so badly wanted to conquer. He couldn’t rid himself of the Brummie accent or the shy interview demeanour, but he knew he had the talent and backed himself to reach his goal.
Slowly but surely, almost unnoticed amid the management hokey-cokey and Pietersen histrionics, he became a senior player. He even won the fans round, shedding the ‘Sherminator’ tag and gaining the much more glorious moniker ‘The Sledgehammer of Eternal Justice’. My friends and I still refer to him simply as ‘Ronald’ (as in ‘sounds familiar’: ‘it rings a Ronald’), his middle name and a strangely fitting epithet for a man who, despite the fact that he will be remembered as one of the most gifted sportsmen of his generation, is still just a kid from Coventry made good.
Last summer, as he took a break between the Champions Trophy final and a career-defining Ashes series, I saw Bell visiting his teammates at a Warwickshire second XI match. He arrived in a pricey-looking 4×4, accompanied by his wife and young son and exuding a palpable aura. His mere presence prompted awed whispers and impressive glances from the sparse crowd.
There was no denying it – the young Bear had become a superstar.