England v Australia, NatWest Series, Chester-le-Street July 7, 2012

Loud shots land softly for Bell

Ian Bell's return to England's ODI side was not championed throughout the land but he is now liberated of his troubles over the winter and in some form to take on South Africa.

There is something about Ian Bell that means even at the height of his game he will never quite make the earth shake. Bowlers will never feel bullied and spectators will rarely gasp in admiration. Sometimes it has to be admitted that readers might not even bother to read. It is his lot in life and he must put up with it. It cannot be denied, though, he is in the finest of form.

He made 69 before chopping on against Clint McKay, extending a run against Australia in the NatWest Series that had previously brought him 53, 41 and 75. His prowess was again apparent, but it is prowess largely without presence, the sort of classical approach that soothes the mind without ever quite quickening the pulse.

Well, grant him this: presence or no presence, the manner in which Bell has reclaimed his England one-day place is extraordinary, his graceful talent paraded time and again. England were preparing for life without him in one-day cricket and whatever people might claim in hindsight there were no protests at the gates. Nobody was especially passionate in arguing his case, neither in the media or the public at large. Somebody in Kings Norton might have shrugged a little in disappointment but revolution there was not.

Bell, though, retained his hunger. Beneath the forever boyish countenance, desire remains entrenched. Since Kevin Pietersen ditched one-day cricket for England three weeks ago and Bell took his chance to return with a century against West Indies at the Rose Bowl, he has scored 364 runs at 72.80 with one hundred and three fifties. He has become a final component of an England side who have extended their winning run in ODIs to nine. One Australian was heard talking about them as favourites for the World Cup in 2014/15, quite a shock for a country that has never won it.

Bell might never be the tough guy in the tattoo parlour, but at least now he can claim he is so menacing that Australian bowlers are breaking down the moment they set eyes on him.

"He is class, isn't he?" Alastair Cook, England's captain, said about Bell. "He is hard to bowl at because he can score 360 degrees. We are getting off to good starts which makes it easier. Kevin Pietersen is a world-class player but we have had to move on and people have had to step up to different roles.

"Bell is not unappreciated in our dressing room. The way he has played in the last two years is outstanding. He has worked so hard at his game, he is always first in the nets, and he is getting just rewards for it."

In that comeback innings against West Indies, Bell began with an effortless straight six, but played the shot in such considered fashion that he made the exceptional look routine. Perhaps deep inside himself he wanted it to be seen as a powerful, chest-out statement that he was back, but to the onlooker it did not quite feel like that.

Many of Bell's most dominant shots are understated, so perfectly constructed that they are almost taken for granted. They demand deeper contemplation. As Krusty The Clown once bemoaned in The Simpsons about something entirely different: "Aw crap, I said the soft part loud and the loud part soft". So it is with Bell in full flow: he flows so effortlessly that the loud shots land softly.

The observation on this website after that Rose Bowl innings that Bell's knock lacked the theatrical appeal of a Pietersen hundred brought howls of protest, much of it not fit to print. The howls, though, came entirely from Pietersen admirers, who felt without justification that their man had been slighted. Hardly anybody ever writes in Bell's defence. Perhaps they do not view things so emotionally and are out dog walking or spraying the roses.

Bell might never be the tough guy in the tattoo parlour, but at least after this innings he can claim he is so menacing that Australian bowlers are breaking down the moment they set eyes on him. Shane Watson and Brett Lee both pulled up with calf injuries and left the field, managing less than four overs between them. They might not play again this series.

Up on the hillside stood Lumley Castle where it was reported on a previous Ashes tour that Watson was afraid of ghosts. These days, Australia stay in Newcastle, but Bell may still walk before him at dead of night, his head clasped in the crook of his arm, haunting him for the rest of the series.

There were some fine shots for this Chester-le-Street crowd to savour: some fulsome drives through extra cover and serene clips off his legs. He chopped James Pattinson past David Hussey's fingertips on 21, but that was his only uncertain moment. It was another systematic innings in his orderly universe. His poise was a million miles away from his traumatic time against Saeed Ajmal in the UAE in the winter. He looks liberated, classical, ready to pit himself against South Africa in the contest to be the No. 1 Test side in the world. England can be grateful for that.

David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo

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