Today we have another guest article, this time by Geoffrey Bunting. It discusses an old TFT favourite, Mr Ian Bell. I should point out it was written before Bell was overlooked for England’s winter tours.
Thanks for this Geoffrey. It’s a thoughtful piece and I hope everyone enjoys it as much as I did. I guess none of us ever fully figured out Ian Bell. I certainly didn’t, much as I loved watching him play.
Bristol, 2007: Ian Bell sets up. His bat is against his shoulder as he surveys the field, picking out the gaps – his gaze settles on extra cover. Munaf Patel paws at the ground at the end of his run up. Now Bell places the bat on the ground, the handle against his thigh as he re-straps his gloves. As a final touch to his routine, he pulls each of his sleeves up to his shoulders. Viewers across the country heave a collective sigh. That’s Pietersen’s move and we all know it: that arrogant tug of the sleeves as if his own form is too hot for even him to handle. When Bell does it, perhaps trying to channel some of Pietersen’s skill and flamboyance, it’s almost comical – like a child trying on their mother’s shoes.
We tend to remember shades of players. It’s Richards’ swagger, the arc of Ponting’s bat, the effortless grace of Laxman, that Trescothick and Sehwag hit the ball so hard without any perceptible footwork. The runs, for the most part, are the realm of statisticians, the rest of us remember more indelible features of our favourite players. Yes there are moments that stick in our minds, but when we recall a player it’s that certain something they possess that no other player does that stirs our memory. When Kevin Pietersen gave that nonchalant tug of his sleeves it was a small part of a wider picture of audacity and brilliance we etched into our minds the moment he put Glenn McGrath into the stands.
A batsman’s identity isn’t just defined by how we remember them, though. It’s also about how they view themselves and the comfort with which they do so. Alistair Cook has never been called an attractive batsman, but his self-assurance – something he appeared to possess from the start – allowed him to flourish, despite technical issues that might have derailed other players. You can add Graeme Smith, with his bullish confidence and closed bat face, into that category too.
But not everyone finds that sweet spot so quickly. It took Pietersen two countries and two counties to recognise he could hammer McGrath off his length, Graham Gooch famously made most of his runs after the age of thirty-three, and more recently Mark Stoneman spent several years averaging in the mid-twenties before discovering the confidence that sparked a run of form that earned him an England spot – before having that confidence knocked out of him at Perth.
This concept of identity – and how it relies so much on confidence – is at the heart of the relative enigma that became Ian Bell. When he tried on Pietersen’s mannerisms, we quickly lost the sense of who Ian Bell really was. In 2007’s Dan in Real Life, Juliette Binoche, upon discovering that her boyfriend has been feeding her compliments from his brother’s book, declares, “All his best lines were yours.” So too did much of Ian Bell’s England career bring to mind the best parts of other players. With a mixture of borrowed characteristics and efforts to fit into changing cultures, the real Ian Bell was buried deep beneath layers of shallow caricatures of Bell’s own making.
It all started against Australia in 2005. Before the series, Bell hit a classy half-century on debut against the West Indies, before smacking Bangladesh around Chester-le-Street for a maiden century in his third test. He looked like he had everything it took to have a long and successful test career – a beautiful technique, an unflustered dominance over bowlers, a visible hunger, and youth. He looked like a number three in waiting.
Then Warne tore up the script. Plenty of batsmen struggled against the greatest spinner ever, but few have seemed so at sea as Ian Bell in 2005. Warne giggled as he trapped him LBW – barely had to ask the umpire to lift the finger. If only we knew then, when he christened Bell The Shermanator, what we know now about Warne’s affinity for lowbrow American comedies. Warne exposed a timid side of Bell, made him Cullinan Mark Two, and, somewhere along the way, something snapped.
Maybe Bell was made fun of for being ginger at school, maybe that amplified the nagging memory of Warne’s giggle, but Bell began to emulate those around him – trying to exorcise the spirit of The Shermanator from his being. He starts with Pietersen: the upturned collar, the sleeve-pull. He would rather be a poor copy of England’s most gifted batsman than remain Warne’s walking wicket. Like a child acting tough in the face of a bully, Bell tries to shake the torment by borrowing someone else’s swagger.
It doesn’t stick. From then on there’s a sense that, no matter what he does, Bell always has at least one demon to banish. Much as Virat Kohli came into 2018 with a point to prove in England, there always seemed to be a flaw in Bell’s temperament that was readily exposed by pundits. A few years after becoming Warne’s plaything, they began to suggest that Bell couldn’t handle the pressure. He only made runs when someone else had done the hard work. To truly excel in the middle order, they said, he had to score ugly runs.
After a period as Pietersen, now Bell made play that he was Paul Collingwood – borrowing his Brigadier Block routine for a tour of South Africa. He keeps out the best they can throw at him for almost five hours in Cape Town, like a tree someone let take root in the crease. At times it’s hard to tell Bell and Collingwood apart as they bat together on the last day. England save the game, pundits laud the ugly runs and suggest he’s turned a corner – and yet there’s a feeling we’re still not really watching Ian Bell.
Over the next decade, he never really found a way back to the effortless and confident batsman that scored two-hundred and ninety-seven runs in his first three tests. His dismantling by Warne, and the insecurity it exposed within him, seemed to stick with him throughout his England career.
We caught glimpses, particularly in 2010/11 when he hit a long over-due double hundred against India, and again in 2013 when he hammered three beautiful hundreds against an unsettled Australia. Yet, even then, one felt that Bell was never really stamping out an agenda of his own, merely responding to those set out before him. While the crisp drives and excellent footwork were always there, somehow they didn’t feel like they belonged to him anymore – somewhere in the course of that series, Warne had taken them from him.
He had his Pietersen period, then the Collingwood phase, there was an ill-fitting beard to appear hardened in Strauss’ England, before he melted back into the dressing room shadows in Cook’s England. He batted everywhere from one to eight, and was one of the best close fielders in the game. Ian Bell took on every mantle thrust upon him and took on every bit of advice that suggested he be more affecting like Pietersen or more reliable like Collingwood. In many ways, Bell was the picture of the selfless team man, ready to take on any role. But these all felt like smokescreens masking the real problem: no one, including Bell himself, was pushing him to be Ian Bell.
At the end of his career, despite finishing as England’s top scorer in ODIs, it felt like Bell never reached his full potential. He wasn’t another Ramprakash or Hick, but finishing his career as a number six with an average approaching forty-three wasn’t reflective of the talent he came into international cricket with. After Warne ripped out his heart, his conquest to find a new identity in the characters of others never allowed him to consistently flourish. Much as a painter who makes excellent forgeries of Seurat or van Gogh is unlikely to be recognised as a great artist, so too did Bell’s inability to script his own story keep him from the pantheon of great test batsmen.
Recently, there’s been talk of how much England need another Jonathan Trott. With the top order in shambles – especially in the wake of Alistair Cook’s retirement – the test team requires a number three that can bat time and possesses a solid technique. The sentiment most often expressed is how much we have missed Jonathan Trott. Shoehorned into these discussions is the idea of recalling Ian Bell as a short-term solution. And yet we never talk about missing him, he feels interchangeable; a substitute for the real Trott who, were it not for his imminent retirement, we might be considering in Bell’s stead. Rather, it feels like a nostalgia for a period in which England’s batting was dominant, laced with sentimentality over Bell’s return to form. Put bluntly, in lieu of Trott – whom we miss – any of that top seven is viable to slake our nostalgia for better days. Bell just happens to be the only one left.
After enduring a difficult few years, in which he actively sought a recall, Bell seemed to find a measure of peace once he put his England aspirations away. After averaging 25.91 in a tormented 2017, Bell emerged from a lengthy break – during which he accepted his England days were over – refreshed and renewed. In interviews there was none of that nervous, stubborn energy common in international aspirants, just a relaxed honesty: “Listen, I’m thirty-six now. I think it has probably gone.”
Able to focus on his own runs, rather than how his tally compared to others around the country, Bell’s average soared in all competitions. Now it was no longer about showcasing his credentials to a pack of selectors, he could get back to scoring runs his way: elegant, dominant, without echoes of his peers. Once he stopped worrying about how to score them, he once again concerned himself only with how many.
There’s something compelling about the idea of a player who, throughout his career, struggled to foster a sense of security for himself returning to the England side to secure the top order. There’s a hint of the Cinderella story to it all. However, given the selectors’ current youth policy, such a call seems unlikely. That hasn’t stopped Bell, only three months after declaring he had let go of his England ambitions, from completing a U-turn most under pressure politicians would be proud of and stating he’s ready to return to the test side. It doesn’t matter that he’s finally found a place, among the old pros of county cricket. Once again the external pressures are too much for Bell to ignore. At thirty-six, it appears that Ian Bell has it in him for one last go at being what people want him to be.
Geoffrey is a writer and designer, his website is here.