With England’s batting struggles against South Africa following hot on the heels of a desolate sub-continental winter; a recall for Ian Bell would not ordinarily feel completely out of the question. The savage beating at Edgbaston handed out to an abject West Indies was dampened somewhat by the abysmal defeat at Headingley and further first innings batting failures at Lord’s.
This is perhaps made more worrying due to the continued failure of England’s new batting replacements to impose themselves. In the opening slot, Keaton Jennings has come and gone following a torrid series against South Africa, where he managed a top score of just 48 in eight innings. In his place, Mark Stoneman has at least chalked up a solid second innings half century (52) at Headingley, and along with his second innings of 40 not out at Lord’s has lent some weight to his tour claims.
Further down the order, significant doubts still persist. Dawid Malan, after failing against South Africa, has made a couple of decent scores against the West Indians. However, the ease with which the fluent scorer at county level has been shackled by a relatively limited attack could be a source of concern.
Conversely, Tom Westley impressed in his early innings against South Africa but has looked increasingly out of his depth in this latest series. His leg-side technique appears to have been found out and with it, his assurance at the crease has faded away. It’s far from guaranteed whether his unbeaten Lord’s knock of 44 against a defeated attack will be enough to guarantee him a winter in Australia.
If only Ian Bell could show even a glimmer of form, a firm chance of another Ashes tour could easily loom. However, with a Championship record of 412 runs at 22.89, this is something that he has despairingly been unable to achieve.
Since his 2004 debut, where he made an accomplished 70 against a far from frightening West Indies; he has always looked the part. But the salad days are long gone along with all that youthful potential – a potential that displayed itself in 7,727 runs from 118 tests at an average of 42.69; notwithstanding a further 161 ODI’s where he accumulated 5,416 runs at a decent average of 37.87. It’s now a fairly safe bet that this arithmetic will remain locked and not subject to any further addition.
It’s interesting to peruse Bell’s Test figures, which on average alone mark him out as more successful at the crease than the likes of Graham Gooch (42.58) and Michael Vaughan (41.44). Yet despite these impressive statistics, there will always be a loud chorus of people that feel these numbers flatter him.
Bell currently nestles on the all-time England scoring charts in eighth place and just a solitary run behind Michael Atherton. By contrast, Atherton’s average of 37.69 is not hugely remarkable and could be considered as little more than run-of-the-mill at the highest level.
However, Atherton had a reputation for courage under fire and is widely considered as a player that eked out every drop of his far more modest talent. Bell, by contrast, is a lavishly gifted batsman with an array of classical strokes. One that former New Zealand international, Dayle Hadlee, described as the “best sixteen-year-old I have ever seen”. It is felt that Bell was capable of so much that even these impressive statistics feel like a partial short change on his abilities.
In the public consciousness, Bell is the player that could elegantly plunder beautifully crafted runs against lame or dispirited attacks on benign pitches, but lacked the extra ingredient of steel and resolve to tough it out when under pressure.
In the ODI arena, he is now permanently linked to the last dispiriting days when England were still playing a static 90’s version of 50-over cricket. It is perhaps fitting that his final ODI was in the dead 2015 World Cup group match versus Afghanistan. He made a tidy 52 not out from 56 balls at a time when the world had already switched off and moved on. Just another of England’s old analogue batsman nervously stuttering and crackling through an unfamiliar, super fast digital world.
Bell has been blessed with a beautiful technique that is squarely in line with the traditional craft of English batsmanship. All front foot poise and perfectly balanced cover drives. Perhaps, in its own way, holding up a mirror to the English game and its ingrained strengths and weaknesses. One that is so deeply rooted to the past that it has often been unable to adapt to or even comprehend the future. A game that prioritises the method over the outcome, whilst labouring under a growing sense of self-doubt and introversion.
In many respects, Bell could be defined as the anti-Pietersen. His reticence and timidity the polar opposite to the swaggering confidence and chutzpah of his former England colleague. Kevin Pietersen, as a batsman, was apt to charge the enemy single-handedly, like a cricketing version of Blackadder’s Lord Flashheart. Whereas Bell appeared to wait fearfully in the relief trenches, always willing to do his duty, but never quite trusting in his ability to see it through. Stubbornly refusing to believe in the arsenal of weapons at his disposal until the terrain was clear and comfortable to navigate.
Confidence has always seemed to be his biggest problem. In equal parts, it has made him a modest and eminently likeable individual but sometimes led to him not being able to impose himself in certain situations. With “The Shermanator” jibes Shane Warne was able to bully him into submission back in the 2005 Ashes series and there has been signs of this since. With the England hierarchy favouring bold and uncompromising players like Ben Stokes, Bell feels somehow adrift and out of place with the current direction of the international side.
This is further evidenced by his struggles with Warwickshire this season. With the team bottom of the Championship and his form with the bat flat-lining, he made the decision to relinquish the captaincy in late August. After, eighteen months at the helm the end came with a creeping sense of certainty. The fact that he also sat out T20 finals day at Edgbaston pointed further to a lowering of the flag and a changing of the guard.
Not a natural leader, he has struggled to impose himself and cope with the burden of captaincy. It is telling that he was never seriously considered for the role by England, when for a period his experience in a team lacking this commodity was especially evident.
But, for all this, Bell is justifiably deserving of more credit. Statistics do not always tell the whole story, but 7,727 test and 5,416 ODI runs, should be acknowledged above the din of the crowd. It is easy to focus on his failures and forget that he was player of the series in England’s 2013 home Ashes triumph. With 562 runs at 48.57 he was the epitome of style and composed class. The picture of consistency that England supporters always hoped for but frustratingly never quite got to see enough of.
Despite his obvious talent, one always felt that against the best bowlers, when there something in the pitch or overhead, that the odds were stacked against him. The frailty of his belief would ebb through his fingers despite his quiet determination to grab onto it.
But on the best days: when the pitch was flat, the bowling controlled or his doubts suppressed, he batted like a dream. An heir to those great English classicists of old and a world class batsman through and through. With his international career now seemingly over, this is perhaps the best way to remember him.