June 12, 2014

Bell and KP: a tale of two talents

It's inevitable that there will be those who want Ian Bell, newly installed in Pietersen's No. 4 spot, to be someone he's not

Pietersen and Bell: different and yet the same in some ways © Getty Images

Of all the uncapped players I've watched in English domestic cricket over the past 15 or so years, no one made batting look as deceptively easy as Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell when they were emerging talents. There were others who showed an ability that was likely to flourish at Test level, but it was Pietersen and Bell who batted like they were already experienced internationals returning to a form of the game they had previously mastered.

With Pietersen it wasn't just his ability; there was also a self-assured presence at the crease - the now familiar body language of a man who is more than content with the way his life is panning out. So while nothing in life is inevitable, it was no surprise that the emerging talent who bludgeoned county attacks up and down the length of England had the confidence to become the genius who could switch-hit the ball into Row Z of stadiums all round the world.

Bell is a different kind of batsman. He's not one whose name over the tannoy will immediately empty a festival beer tent of casual fans suddenly eager for a better view of the middle; rather, one capable of the elegant strokeplay that makes old men nod their head in appreciation as memories drift back to days of their youth when they watched May, Dexter and Graveney.

For both players, the elevation to England Test regular came in 2005. Bell had made a one-off appearance the previous year, but was given a run in the side during the early-season Bangladesh series. Pietersen's chance came at the expense of Graham Thorpe, and just in time for the main event of 2005, the Ashes.

That first major series, against a truly great Australian side, set the blueprint for how Pietersen and Bell have been perceived by parts of the press and public ever since. Pietersen, faced with opponents equally full of talent and self-confidence, revelled in the big-match atmosphere and unveiled a haircut and an attacking intent that set him apart from the stereotypical England player. While Bell, like so many English batsmen over the preceding decade, wilted in the face of the talent, bluster and mind games of Shane Warne.

As his Test career progressed, Pietersen's confidence became more of an issue. Each dismissal to a boundary catch was used as evidence that he was unable to subjugate ego for the greater good. Each disagreement with management increased the impression that they would prefer him to be just a little bit less like Kevin and just a little bit more like everyone else, until eventually they felt that the circle could no longer be squared.

Criticism of Bell has been less high-profile but more varied. He doesn't score runs in tough situations. He doesn't bat high enough in the order. He doesn't dominate a bowling attack in the way a player of his talent is capable of doing. It's quite a charge sheet for a batsman with 6700 runs, 20 centuries and a Test average of 45. But without it the press wouldn't be able to maintain their tradition of labelling every series he plays in as "a turning point in his career".

Today sees the first Test of the English summer and that tradition is sure to continue as we enter the post-Pietersen era, with Bell taking over his position at No. 4 for England. It's inevitable that Bell will be compared to his predecessor, and that once again there will be people who want England's No. 4 to be someone he's not.

But Bell isn't going to switch-hit the ball into Row Z. And he's unlikely to dominate a Test attack in the same way as Pietersen. We can't expect him to, any more than England could expect Pietersen to change his personality for them. What we can expect is that Bell will show off some of that elegant strokeplay that makes old men nod their head in appreciation, and makes him one of the two most naturally gifted England batsmen of his generation.

Dave Hawksworth has never sat in a press box or charged a match programme to expenses