Ian Bell (L) and Rohit Sharma © Getty Images and © AFP

 

By Akash Kaware

 

There is something deeply satisfying about watching a player translating obvious potential into performance, and I’m sure many cricket fans in India felt that satisfaction watching Rohit Sharma bat in the just concluded five-match series against the West Indies. It might be premature to say that consistent runs against a mediocre side full of honest toilers rather than fearsome predators is a sign of Sharma finally coming of age. But, for a while now, it has been evident that the quality of the opposition comes very low in the list of contributing factors to Sharma’s successes and failures. He has always looked just as capable of thrashing Brett Lee out of an attack as of throwing his wicket away to a rank long hop.

 

More important than the number or runs he scored and the quality of the attack he faced was the situations he scored his runs in. Twice in the series, he took charge of a wobbling chase and returned to the pavilion undefeated when victory was sealed. All the glorious strokes that had long ago marked him out as India’s next big batting hope were there for all to see, but the much-needed injection of steel and the ability to adapt to situations was something of a pleasant surprise.

 

Rohit’s form in the one-dayers makes one wish he was part of India’s Test campaign in the Caribbean as well. A debut against a none-too-threatening opposition would have helped him ease his way into Test cricket. But during the time it took Rohit to find the way he seemed to have lost, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina and Subramaniam Badrinath made all the right moves and have rightfully claimed their places in the squad ahead of him in the absence of the big guns. Rohit’s chance in Test cricket will come soon though. And when it does, there is someone from the English camp he might want to look up to – Ian Bell.

 

As with Rohit, no one has ever doubted the immense potential that Bell has. Right from the start of his Test career, he seemed to have all the strokes in the book, an immaculate technique and the kind of elegance you cannot practice but are born with. He started his career with a bang, and a couple of not outs against Bangladesh in 2005 left him with a ludicrous average of 297 after three Tests. It was too good to last, and while England rejoiced after regaining the Ashes in the epic series that followed, everything fell apart for Bell personally. Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne toyed with him like a rag doll, but then, they have toyed with many better batsmen than Bell. As if that wasn’t enough, he was cruelly nicknamed ‘The Shermanator’ by Warne, for his visibly timid presence on the field.

 

That series did not completely break him. He continued to score runs, very pretty runs one might add, against all kind of attacks, including against Australia in the 2006-07 Ashes series, but quickly developed a reputation as a fair-weather performer, who crumbled at the first sign of pressure. The fact that his first ten Test centuries came in innings when at least one other English batsman had also scored a hundred did not help matters either. A daft shot in the debacle at Jamaica against the West Indies in early 2009, when England rolled over for 51 to concede the series proved to be the tipping point, and Bell was dropped from the side.

 

The Bell who came back into the Test side later that year was a changed batsman. There were a couple of customary half-centuries against the Aussies in the 2009 Ashes, but it was in the series that followed against South Africa that the tide really turned for him. A beautifully-paced 140 at Durban, even though it again followed Alastair Cook’s century, was instrumental in England’s innings victory. That innings was followed by possibly the defining innings of his career till date, an over-my-dead-body kind of five-hour rearguard that saved the Cape Town Test for his team, and finally proved that the pretty-boy had turned into a gritty man. Bell has been a changed man ever since.

 

If ever someone could prove that aggression does not always equate to bravado on the field, it has been Bell. His body language is still quietly confident rather than in-your-face, and to borrow a commentators’ cliché, he has let his bat do all the talking. Since last year’s Ashes series, the English batting line-up has been churning out runs like a  well-oiled run machine, and Bell has played his part to perfection at every time of asking, not always with mountains of runs like his mates Cook and Jonathan Trott, but with innings that the occasions demanded. Even in the current Test series against Sri Lanka, the second Test at Lord’s showcased his value to this English side. In the first innings, with England wobbling at 22 for three, he ground out 52 unspectacular runs that laid the foundation for Matt Prior’s assault later on. In the second innings of the same game, with England looking for quick runs, Bell played a charming little innings of 57 off just 43 balls. Clearly, this is man who knows his game very well now, and can take command of the very situations in which he would have been expected to crumble not so long ago.

 

Very often, we come across players who we want to see doing well, no matter which team they represent. I must confess I would be a very happy man if Bell scored four centuries against India in the Test series later this year, provided India wins the series. Rohit Sharma has many legends to look up to in his own dressing room, but as someone who has managed to make his mark in world cricket despite being labeled ‘gifted, but soft’ in the past, Ian Bell might not be a bad example for him to emulate.

 

(Akash Kaware is an Indian IT professional, who would’ve been a successful international cricketer if it hadn’t been for an annoying tendency to run towards square-leg while facing tennis, rubber or leather cricket balls hurled at anything more than genuine medium-pace! Watching Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid convinced him that breaking into the Indian team was not going to happen anytime soon and hence he settled to become an engineer and MBA, who occasionally wrote about cricket. A few months ago, sensing his uselessness and constant use of cricket websites at work, his company banished him to Canada. His hopes of playing international cricket have, thus, been renewed!)