After the semi-final of this year’s World Snooker Championship, a pulsating final frame victory for Ronnie O’Sullivan over Mark Selby, O’Sullivan spoke to the media. Most post-match interviews are as dull as a wet weekend in Sheffield. Ronnie’s are anything but.
Having spent three minutes talking about how he was ‘just trying to find a good cue action’, O’Sullivan – aged 44 and bidding for a sixth world title – was encouraged by the BBC’s Rob Walker to maybe show a bit of emotion.
“But sport is all about great stories as well…” Walker began. “I don’t believe it is,” O’Sullivan countered. “I believe it’s about the cue action.”
Not for the first time, The Rocket had tongue lodged firmly in cheek. He knew Walker was right. If sport were simply about technique, numbers and which balls go into which holes, it wouldn’t be worth following. It’s about the human beings. The flaws, the mistakes, the bust-ups, the comebacks. It’s about the stories.
All of which brings us, naturally, to the life and times of Ian Ronald Bell. A Warwickshire cricketer since joining the club’s youth setup aged 10, Bell went on to become one of his country’s greatest – or at least most successful – batsmen.
He is a five-time Ashes winner, currently eighth on the list of England’s leading run-scorers, blessed with an orthodox style which is easy on the eye and, by all accounts, a thoroughly decent chap.
I followed Bell’s career closely. When he broke into the Warwickshire team as a 17-year-old, I was three years younger, watching from the Edgbaston members’ section, clutching my scorecard and wondering if I had enough change in my pocket for a sandwich and the bus fare home.
Twenty-one years later, as he left the field for the final time, the applause of his teammates echoing around an empty Sophia Gardens, I was watching the live-streamed pictures on YouTube, my two-year-old daughter sleeping on my chest.
As Alex Bowden points out over at King Cricket, Bell divided opinion among English cricket fans. ‘He suffered from people forever thinking he *should* be better. This shortfall between what he was actually doing and what people for some reason thought he could do led many people to actively hate him.’ For his part, Bowden has cultivated an editorial policy of indifference towards Bell, which seems entirely appropriate.
When I think back on the truly great cricketers of my lifetime, each one had his flaws, his demons, his story. Botham, the loose cannon who could rescue the most hopeless of causes using nothing more than charisma, cigars and a little bit of inswing.
Pietersen, the South African exile with the fragile ego, chips and mushy peas on each shoulder, a towering individual who never quite accepted he was playing a team sport.
Stokes, the brat with the fiery temper, who took the scenic route to the top of the world via a broken locker, a Bristol nightclub and a court case which came within a stump’s width of ending his career before it reached its glorious, redemptive summit.
Mild-mannered Jos Buttler, perhaps the most naturally gifted player of his generation, has done more than anyone to drag English cricket kicking, screaming and reverse-paddle-sweeping into the T20 era. (Oh, and behind the choirboy smile, Buttler has a pretty short fuse on him too.)
Look to other sports – Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Zinedine Zidane, John McEnroe. All reached the very peak of their chosen game, and did so despite – or maybe because of – a carousel full of emotional and psychological baggage.
Bell was the chosen one, marked out early as a future international star, the course set, the milestones lined up to be ticked off. Ok, he struggled early on against the Big Bad Aussies. But the closest he came to controversy was when he was run out, and then recalled in ‘the spirit of cricket’ when India realised they were risking a diplomatic incident, at The Oval in 2011. He made 157 in that innings. England won. But that was not the story.
Few people really know what professional athletes go through, the sacrifices they make, the physical and mental torment they endure to reach the top. Maybe it’s just that some wear their flaws on their sleeve more than others. Plenty of champions are straight-edged, clean-cut winning machines. For every Gascoigne, there’s a Schumacher. For every Cantona, a Federer.
What is Bell’s story? They say as a young man he suffered from a lack of confidence, that he needed an arm around the shoulder and a captain who would tell him how good he was at batting. That was Ian Bell’s story. He was just really, really good at batting.