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Ian Bell: A symbol of picture-perfect batsmanship at the crease

Ian Bell © Getty Images
Ian Bell © Getty Images

Ian Bell, born on April 11, 1982, is an England middle-order batsman. Bell was earmarked for success at a young age.  Bharath Ramaraj looks at the elegant right-handed batsman’s glittering career.

Back in 2000, when the Under-19 World Cup was held in Sri Lanka, there was considerable hype surrounding the baby faced 17-year-old batsman from England, Ian Bell. By then, he had already played for Warwickshire against Sussex and was compared to the fulcrum of Warwickshire’s line-up, Dominic Ostler. In that tournament, Bell failed to set the Sri Lankan grounds alight. Yet, during his brief stays at the crease, the heavy dollops of glistening skill and talent were unmistakable. Such was the heightened expectations on Bell that despite moderate success during the 2002 County season, he was earmarked to replace the injured Marcus Trescothick in the England line-up that was about to take on India in a Test series.

Actually, it took him two more years to make his Test debut against the West Indies at The Oval. In his debut Test, he essayed a gritty knock of 70. Yes, the opposition wasn’t a strong one, but it is never easy to overcome the inner demons and do well in your first Test. With England looking towards youth, Bell was given an easy road to establish himself in the setup by playing against Bangladesh in 2005. The Bangladeshi bowling line-up made up of military medium-pacers and the spinners couldn’t pose any threat to the elegant right-handed batsman. They couldn’t get him out even once.

Just when it seemed like Bell had found his feet in Tests, he had an uphill task on his hands as the all-conquering Australians were coming in next. The Australian setup known for hunting down batsmen like a pack of hungry wolves were all over Bell like a rash in the Ashes 2005. Bell looked like a fish out of water throughout the series. Even when Bell scored those twin fifties in the third Test at Old Trafford in Manchester, it seemed like his tangle of nerves were jangling. Here was a batsman, who was feeling the pressure of playing a high profile series.

England went onto win the historic Ashes series 2-1 in 2005 and that led to wild celebrations all over the country. However, their world came crashing down when Pakistan thumped them 2-0 at home. The one real bright spot during that tour though, was Bell’s century at Faisalabad in the second Test. In that Test, Bell and Kevin Pietersen, two of England’s finest stroke-makers with their contrasting styles finally stood up to a Pakistan side on the rampage. Bell, light on his feet repeatedly danced down the wicket to play lofted shots against the leg-spinner Danish Kaneria. He also with his dexterous wrists was able to use the sheer pace of Shoaib Akthar to pierce gaps in the field. Bell’s first Test hundred away from home, especially against a formidable bowling attack, must have given him immense satisfaction and pride.

By the end of 2006, when Bell and his teammates travelled Down Under to play Australia in the Ashes 2006-07, the diminutive right-handed batsman was expected to fire on all cylinders. Unfortunately, his failures during the Ashes 2005 were perhaps haunting him. On most occasions, Bell would play sumptuous shots. However, the exquisite timing, which was a sight for sore eyes didn’t always materialise into big scores. He rarely was able to find the gaps in the field. His only innings of note came at the WACA in Perth when he compiled a knock of 87. In that innings, those drives flowed like a gigantic river from his bat. It made the legendary leg-spinner, Shane Warne to give him the nickname, ‘Sherminator’.

Bell, though, continued to struggle for consistency. Even the surgical-like precision with which he handled Muttiah Muralitharan at Kandy in Sri Lanka in 2007 seemed to be like an oasis in a desert. In fact, when England toured New Zealand in 2008, his place was on the chopping block. It required a heart-warming century in the final Test of the series at Napier to repose the faith shown in him by the selectors and force his detractors to swallow a bitter-pill. Actually, during that Test his teammate Andrew Strauss’s place was under threat as well. He too came out as a true winner with a determined century.

In 2008, cricket fans got to see Bell at his majestic best at the home of cricket — Lord’s.  The equanimity and the poise with which he went about dismantling a fine South African pace attack was glorious to watch. He explored the 360-degree arc of the ground.  His innings was full of drives, late cuts and that occasional lofted stroke down the ground. It was a tragedy that he got out by offering a simple caught and bowled chance to left-arm spinner Paul Harris. If anyone deserved a double ton, it was him.

For the next 12 months, Bell had to wade through a rough patch. The unruffled elegance was replaced by a man who wasn’t sure about his ability. England’s abject poor performance in the first Test of the series against the West Indies at Kingston, Jamaica in February 2009 resulted in Bell being dropped. Selectors finally plumped for the unorthodox batsman Owais Shah over the technically correct Bell.

Bell had to go back to those well-manicured English County grounds, where he had honed his skills. By aggregating mountains of runs in the County circuit, he came back into the selectors’ reckoning. The untimely injury of Pietersen and with England in desperate need of a rock-solid batsman, they went back to Bell for the fifth and final Ashes 2009 Test at The Oval. In that all-important Test, it was Bell’s innings which helped England to accrue a good total on a track that had plenty of variable bounce and was bound to take spin. England won the match and reclaimed the Ashes with a 2-1 margin. Stuart Broad deservedly got all the accolades and praise for his match-winning spell in the first innings. Jonathan Trott also made headlines with his 119 in the second innings. But it still has to be said that it was Bell’s knock in the first dig that provided England a platform on which they won the series.

Critics were still not convinced about his temperament. Even when he made a hundred at Durban against South Africa in 2009, it was pointed out that he compiled it when England was in a good position. Instead of flailing hopelessly in mediocrity, he rose to the challenge with his sublime batsmanship in Australia in the Ashes 2010-11. In the final Test of the series played at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG), he gave a fitting riposte to those, who repeatedly kept saying that he can’t exorcise his past failures against Australia. The Aussies had already lost the series to England, but Bell had a point to prove. He did it in style with a fine century.

Bell’s fine form in Australia was just a stepping stone to success. In 2011, Bell touched heavenly heights. He was simply unstoppable that year. The double-hundred he scored against India at The Oval was a picture perfect and flawless innings. Bell was suddenly hailed by English journalists, as the next all-time great batsman.

In the world of sport, a few months can feel like millions of years. Bell must have felt something similar, as after a successful English season, he couldn’t buy a run in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) against Pakistan. The Pakistan spinners, Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman, pinged him to the crease and Bell looked completely lost. Bell has a picture-perfect technique against all types of bowling, but sometimes it isn’t just about pure talent. In the UAE, Bell essayed shots with no conviction behind it. It took him more than one year to come out of his poor form in the UAE. In the final Test of the series against India in 2012, he finally found his form with a century. This helped Alastair Cook’s England win the four-match Test series against India 2-1. Here, one has to give credit to the selectors for keeping faith in him.

Ian Bell is one of the best exponents of the cut shot in the game. He used this stroke to excellent effect during the Ashes 2013 as England beat Australia 3-0 © Getty Images
Ian Bell is one of the best exponents of the cut shot in the game. He used this stroke to excellent effect during the Ashes 2013 as England beat Australia 3-0 © Getty Images

Since that century, Bell has arguably been England’s best batsman. It was his backs-to-the-wall half-century at Auckland against New Zealand that helped England to escape from the jaws of defeat in March 2013. He followed it up with three timeless compositions against Australia in the Ashes 2013. Every-time, he played the late cut in that series, Australian fielders were left in a state of trance. How could anyone find gaps with utmost easy on each occasion? England won the Ashes 2013 series 3-0 and Bell was the Player of the Tournament.

In the recently concluded Ashes 2013-14 series, Bell, just like other English batsmen failed to deliver the goods. But Bell is still 32 and has enough years of cricket left in him. Bell has had reasonable success in One-Day Internationals (ODIs). It has to be said that since Bell has taken over the role of opening the batting from Pietersen in June 2012, he has been in excellent touch. In his last 32 ODIs, he has amassed 1,401 runs at 46.7.

Over the years, Ian Bell has been criticised as a minnow basher (he averages 158.25 against Bangladesh). Yet, one can’t discount the fact that Bell has been a symbol of excellence many times for his country, in times of crisis. Certainly one of the modern-day English greats!

(Bharath Ramaraj, an MBA in marketing, eats, drinks and sleeps cricket. He has played at school and college-level, and now channelises his passion for the game by writing about it)

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