Ian Bell: England's criminally underrated silent assassin

From the four Ashes Tests, Ian Bell has scored 500 runs till now © Getty Images

He has easily been the best batsman of the ongoing Ashes series and is arguably the only difference between the two sides. Yet, what is it about Ian Bell that has never won him the attention he has so deserved? Parth Pandya takes a look.

1st Test, Day 3, Trent Bridge, Nottingham
England were almost taken by shock. Being firm favourites not only to retain the urn but to hand Australia a humiliation of the highest degree, they couldn’t have possibly started on a wronger foot. The much hyped batting juggernaut was bundled out for a paltry total on the opening day and while Australian response almost appeared comical, a certain 19-year-old debutant going by the name Ashton Agar had taken the English attack to the cleaners for over two hours of unadulterated display exquisite strokeplay. Carrying the burden of a 75-run deficit, England lost Joe Root and Jonathan Trott before the day concluded. The next morning, Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen did their bit to salvage the sinking ship but both perished before adding enough to help the fans breathe easy.
With the top four having been dismissed accumulating a measly 56-run lead, the hosts were feeling the heat already and all hell would inevitably break loose at the prospect of going down in the series, much more so in the very first Test itself. Enter Ian Bell. Rise Ian Bell. Rescue Ian Bell. A second hundred in successive Ashes Tests for the man from Warwickshire as he continued things from where he had left them off in Sydney. While eventually Australia lost the Test by a margin which was smaller than the runs Stuart Broad scored after not walking off, that takes nothing away from what Bell produced against continuously intimidating and testing spells of fast bowling. Winning the very first Test of a long series is always of paramount importance and with the margin of victory being ever so thin here, the knock Bell played has to be noted down as one that greatly affected the shape the series took then onwards.

2nd Test, Day 1, Lord’s, London
Although Mitchell Starc’s figures from the first Test were far from abysmal, Australia took the right call by bringing in Ryan Harris, who could grind out much more from a super responsive wicket at Lord’s. And the decision instantly seemed to click. The top order once again failed not to disappoint and England were three down without even forcing Michael Clarke to put on his thinking hat. Trott continued being Trott and entertained the crowd with some fancy strokeplay for a decisive 99-run stand but failed to capitalize on a start — not for the first time in the series and most certainly not the last time either.
In company of a tentative looking Jonny Bairstow, who was yet to correct his technique in facing the away going ball with a straighter bat, Bell was once again at his imperial best for the next session and a half. Often thrifty while playing his shots, Bell mustered his runs at a decent pace ensuring he didn’t allow the Australians to find their rhythm. Ultimately perishing against the unlikeliest of all bowlers, Steven Smith, Bell did enough to rescue England from a delicate situation which could have so easily turned for the worse. Root’s impeccable 180 in the second innings went on to win the major share of plaudits for the Test and quite deservingly so but it was once again a subtle yet forthright approach from Bell at a critical juncture in the game that turned things drastically in England’s favour. Australia’s misery with the bat is not even worth talking about here.

4th Test, Day 3, Riverside Ground, Chester-le-Street
Two days earlier, Bell had played the first and perhaps the only rash shot in the series trying to hit Nathan Lyon against the turn over the mid-off that was placed more towards the extra cover. The shot was anything but well-timed Harris timed his run to perfection to take one of the better catches of the English summer. The shot was reminiscent to the one he had played at Ahmedabad a few months back trying to slog a well-flighted delivery from Pragyan Ojha throwing away his precious wicket.
Notwithstanding Pietersen’s magnificent and authoritative hundred at Manchester, England had by and large struggled when Bell failed with his bat. The trend didn’t change much at Durham as England could barely manage a respectable total but Australia, reclaiming their mediocrity with the bat, allowed the hosts to stay in the game. However, just when you would have thought the Cooks and the Trotts of the world had underperformed enough for a series with so much at stake, both along with Root were dismissed with the lead being hardly a few more than the number of unsuccessful reviews Shane Watson has called for in his career. But by the end of the day’s play, England’s lead had crossed the 200-run mark with the rescue having been once again led by you know who. A third century in the four Tests and, much more importantly, third knock in the series of enormous significance. Three different Tests, three different situations, one Ian Bell.

The underrated assassin
Although the scoreline at the end of four Tests reads 3-0 in their favour, England have been far from a dominant force you’d be led to believe going strictly by the results alone. To put things into perspective, if not for an outrageous call by Aleem Dar and the unforgiving rain of Manchester, the series could indeed have been differently poised as we gear up for the rather inconsequential five days at The Oval. The English bowling unit, brilliant though it has been, has fairly been negated by their counterparts from down under who have been equally impressive — perhaps even more if you consider the massive difference in talent and experience between the batting departments of the two sides.
The difference between the teams therefore has been underlined by two factors: One team’s clearly better ability at dealing with pressure and the presence of a certain man who bats at five for England. Ever since their rise to prominence post the emphatic 2010-11 Ashes win Down Under, the raves and the acclaims have majorly been reserved for three gentlemen — Cook, Trott and Pietersen. And while there is no meaning to undermine the efforts of the three who have performed at a laudable consistency over this period, the overlooking of Bell as an equally important component of this batting unit has been, mildly put, criminal.
Granted he has been left far behind his peers in terms of not living up to the expectations in testing conditions of the subcontinent during England’s three outings in last two years but you don’t reach to the zenith of Test cricket without being ruthless enough at home either. And at home, among his contemporaries, Bell scores the highest number of runs per innings which, for starters, is no mean feat. Clearly he needs to do much more away from home but his underperformance there, particularly on the subcontinent wickets, is not the only factor for him being an underrated batsman.
Bell bats at No 5 for England and more often than not enters at a stage where piles of runs have already been scored by the much celebrated triumvirate who bat above him in the order. His runs therefore are not of the greatest consequence when the games are analyzed in retrospect. Moreover, his playing style is extremely conservative, hardly trying anything too unorthodox, weighing solidity and grit way more than flair and style. That’s one of the reasons he manages to convert solid starts into a big score with incredible regularity. But the lack of attraction factor in his game never allows him to earn the recognition worthy of his efforts.
Adding a little psychological angle to the argument, Bell doesn’t field at the most visible of positions on the ground and hence naturally the cameras do not pan on him as often as they perhaps would on Cook and Trott guarding the slip cordons. He therefore isn’t part of those often animated team discussions ranging from introducing a bowling change to debating whether a decision needs to be reviewed. Being the unassuming customer that he is, his lack of flamboyance deems him an uninteresting target for the media and that hardly ever makes him the talk of the town. And these are factors that immensely contribute to the stardom of a sporting figure. There’s only so much of fame your bat wins you; whether we admit it or not is a different matter altogether.
As things stand, Bell has done enough on his part to be regarded as one of the best batsmen in Test cricket among the modern generation. Few among his peers have done as good as him and even fewer have been better. Scoring runs in unfamiliar conditions is a test of character for any batsman and Bell does need to do more there, out of his comfort zone, to book a permanent place in the league of England’s all time greats. His ton at Nagpur in December last year along with Trott was a very important one that ensured England did not concede the hard-earned series-winning lead. But he certainly needs to produce more of that kind from his bat in the future. He’s young enough to tour all those places at least two more times in his career and a slight improvement in technique to bat on the slow and turning wickets will definitely help him go a long way — perhaps help his side win another series too.

Despite having comprehensively outperformed each of the other 27 players fielded by the two teams over the four Tests, Bell is yet to be declared the Man of the Match in the ongoing edition of the Ashes. Perhaps the bigger prize awaits him at the conclusion of the Oval Test. Being declared the Man of the Series in an Ashes campaign changed Cook, the batsman, forever. The writer sincerely wishes it provides Bell the same impetus to take his career to dizzying heights from here on.

(Parth Pandya believes writing makes up for not being good enough to play sports at the top level. He is the editor of The Hard Tackle, India’s fastest growing football website)