Ian Bell: A modern batting great?

Ian Bell’s scores of 109 and 74 were highly significant and directly helped in England s mammoth win against Australia in the Lord’s Test © Getty Images

The halfway mark of the Ashes 2013 has gone by and England lead the series 2-0 with two matches to go. James Anderson, Joe Root, Graeme Swann, Kevin Pietersen and a poor Australia have been attributed towards England’s success. It might slip people’s mind that Ian Bell’s contributions have been pivotal in England retaining the Ashes. Shrikant Shankar analyses Bell’s career so far and wonders if he could be called ‘a modern great’.

England retained the Ashes in just the third Test of the ongoing series in Manchester on August 5, 2013. Rain played a significant part in Australia not making it 2-1 and keeping their hopes alive. First, bad light stopped play at the end of Day Four to take some time away from the visitors. Then a mixture of bad light and rain allowed only 20.3 overs to be bowled on the last day. Kevin Pietersen also played an important role in England not losing the match, hitting a century in the first innings. People, however, might forget the contribution made by Ian Bell. His 115-run stand with Pietersen for the fifth wicket in England’s first innings helped the home side put on a reasonable total. It also made the Australian bowlers toil hard for a lot of overs.

Bell’s achievements have not got the appreciation they deserve in the series. James Anderson got all the plaudits for England’s victory in the first Test at Trent Bridge, and deservedly so. He took two five-wicket hauls in the match. Australia had in fact got a 65-run first innings lead and looked likely to pull off an improbable win. Bell’s 109 off 267 balls made sure that England set a 311-run target. England won the match by a mere 14 runs. Now we know how important those runs were.

In the second Test at Lord’s, Joe Root stole the show with a knock of 180 in the second innings. Graeme Swann took nine wickets to rattle the Australians. England’s victory margin was far more significant as they won by 347 runs. Again Bell’s contribution may not be easily remembered. His scores of 109 and 74 were highly significant and directly helped in England’s mammoth win.

At Old Trafford, Bell came out to bat when England’s first innings score read 110 for four. That stand with Pietersen was needed. He got done by a world-class delivery from Ryan Harris, if not he was well on his way to become the first England batsman to score hundreds in four consecutive Ashes Tests. With two centuries and two half-centuries, Bell is the leading run-scorer with 381 runs. Michael Clarke is second on the run charts with 319, and then comes Root with 242. One can see the difference Bell has made in the Ashes already. He has, though, been under the radar.

But that has been Bell’s situation throughout his career. He has hardly ever stolen the limelight. For that, Pietersen, Alastair Cook, Andrew Flintoff, Michael Vaughan, Andrew Strauss were there. It took Bell some time to settle into the England team. One of his initial series was the 2005 Ashes. That was no easy task against a brilliant unit. His contributions were menial in England’s enthralling triumph. In the 2006-07 Ashes, there was hardly anything anyone could have done as one of the greatest Australian sides swept the series 5-0. Bell was poor in the 2009 Ashes which England won 2-1. In the 2010-11 Ashes, Bell finally found his feat. He scored 115 at the Sydney Cricket Ground to help England win the match comfortably.

Bell has come a long way since being called ‘Sherminator’ by Shane Warne. Just going by his records and statistics, Bell stands in the company of some modern legends. But somehow he is not considered as one. Let us have a look at his career figures so far and compare them with some batsmen who have played in the same era as Bell and/or near the same era. The first table highlights Bell’s career Test runs and we can see where he stands in comparison with some other so-called legends and greats.

Table — 1 (All facts and figures are up-to-date as of August 5, 2013)

Batsman Matches Runs Average 100s 50s
Sourav Ganguly 113 7,212 42.17 16 35
Andrew Strauss 100 7,037 40.91 21 27
Chris Gayle 97* 6,836 42.45 15 34
AB de Villiers 85* 6,364 50.50 16 32
Ian Bell 91* 6,306 46.71 19 37
Michael Hussey 79 6,235 51.52 19 29

Note — * suggests that the batsman has not retired yet

Here we can see that Bell is in a list comprising batsmen, whose records speak volumes. He is less than a thousand runs behind former India captain Sourav Ganguly. Andrew Strauss, Chris Gayle, AB de Villiers and Michael Hussey are definitely considered as modern greats of cricket, especially in their own countries. Anyone who scores over 6,000 runs in Test cricket has done something right in their career.

The second table highlights the averages of some players, who have had highly successful Test careers.

Table — 2 (All facts and figures are up-to-date as of August 5, 2013)

Batsman Matches Runs Averages 100s 50s
Ian Bell 91* 6,306 46.71 19 37
VVS Laxman 134 8,781 45.97 17 56
Justin Langer 105 7,696 45.27 23 30
Sourav Ganguly 113 7,212 42.17 16 35

Note — * suggests that the batsman has not retired yet

Any batting average in the mid-forties is brilliant. Bell’s career average is better than that of VVS Laxman, Justin Langer and Ganguly. Laxman is for certain considered as one of the best batsman of the modern era. Like Laxman and Ganguly, Bell has mostly played in the middle-order for his country. Langer, though an opener, was one of Australia’s main batsmen during their greatest days.

The third table shows how many centuries Bell has scored in Test cricket and how far behind he is in comparison with some modern greats. The table also shows some cricketers who are near legend status, but have scored lesser centuries.
Table — 3 (All facts and figures are up-to-date as of August 5, 2013)

Batsman Matches Runs Averages 100s 50s
Alastair Cook 95* 7,669 48.23 25 31
Michael Clarke 95* 7,594 52.73 24 27
Virender Sehwag 104* 8,586 49.34 23 32
Kevin Pietersen 97* 7,705 48.45 23 31
Andrew Strauss 100 7,037 40.91 21 27
Hashim Amla 70* 5,785 52.11 19 27
Ian Bell 91* 6,306 46.71 19 37
Michael Vaughan 82 5,719 41.44 18 18
Adam Gilchrist 96 5,570 47.60 17 26

Note — * suggests that the batsman has not retired yet

Bell is only six centuries behind Cook, five behind Clarke and four behind Virender Sehwag and Pietersen. All of the above are modern legends. Cook is also touted to break Sachin Tendulkar’s record for most Test centuries, so Bell is not very far off is he? Bell also has the same number of centuries as South Africa’s Hashim Amla. Although Amla has played significantly lesser matches, he usually bats at No 3. Bell rarely bats at No 4 and mostly bats at No 5 and No 6. Bell has more centuries than former captain Michael Vaughan and former Australian wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist. Vaughan batted as an opener and came in at No 3 and No 4 for the most part of his career. Gilchrist came in at No 7 and sometimes was not required to bat due to his legendary teammates.

Numbers and statistics do not tell the whole picture, but they never lie. Bell’s numbers are very impressive and he has played some crucial knocks apart from the ones mentioned above. He is only 31 years of age and has played in 91 Test matches so far. He is only a batsman and hence has ample time on his side. The wear and tear of bowling does not come into play. Bell is also considered to have a variety of conventional strokes that even Pietersen does not possess. So, barring any major injury, Ian Bell should improve those figures and maybe six-seven years from now they will make for even greater reading.

So would you consider Ian Bell a modern batting great?

(Shrikant Shankar previously worked with Mobile ESPN, where he did audio commentary for many matches involving India, Indian Premier League and Champions League Twenty20. He has also written many articles involving other sports for ESPNSTAR.com. You can follow him on Twitter @Shrikant_23)