Bell recalls career turning point
As Ian Bell sat in the dressing rooms at Edgbaston in May 2009 and watched his former England colleagues take the field in a Test against West Indies, the prospect of a 100th Test cap seemed almost impossibly distant.
Bell was, at the time, on the periphery of the England side. He had been dropped after the debacle of the defeat in Jamaica when England were bowled out for 51 with a message that, for all his talent, more was expected of him if he was going to win a recall.
But now, with Bell on the brink of becoming the 12th England player to win 100 Test caps, he can look back on the experience of being dropped as the turning point of his career. The shock, the hurt and the realisation of how much representing his country meant to Bell spurred him on into fulfilling the expectations that had, at times, seemed to weigh him down in his earlier years.
"2009 was the turning point for me," Bell said. "The guys walked out at Lord's and I was at Edgbaston watching on TV.
"I felt then that I didn't just want to be playing county cricket. I felt I had unfinished business. I knew that when I got my next chance, I didn't want to let it go. Even with 40 Tests under my belt, I knew then I had to do more to stay in the side."
The key for Bell was learning to perform under pressure. While there was no doubting the sweetness of his timing, there were doubts about his ability deliver when England most required it. Until he was dropped - 45 Tests into his career - he had never scored a century in an innings when none of his team-mates had also scored one.
"You try to get away from those stats, but they're there in black and white," Bell admitted. "My goal was always to try to play the tough innings."
"You ask questions about yourself. You stop taking the easy option. Maybe in my early days I did that a little bit too much. I scored a lot of nice runs that looked good on the eye but really didn't change the course of the game.
"The next chance came when Kevin Pietersen got injured in the 2009 Ashes. And since then, things have gone really well. I started to score runs when the team really needed them. That was a massive turning point in me where I thought I could go on and get 100 Tests.
"Last summer was probably the best I've played under that kind of pressure and hopefully that's just the start now. For the rest of my career I can do that more often and more consistently for England. I've really enjoyed the last few years. I'm 32 and feel as though I'm batting as well as I ever have for England."
But, having experienced the pain of being dropped, he is reluctant to look beyond the present and consider the prospect of surpassingg Alec Stewart's record of most Test appearances for an England player; 133.
"I've tried not to look too far ahead," Bell said. "If I stay fit, I want to play as long as I can for England. I love it.
"I watched people like Mike Atherton and Alec Stewart play their 100th Tests and you think it's what you'd love to do. That was my dream so to manage to do it is an incredible feeling. It's why I played the game. It is all I wanted to do as a kid, so I've managed to do what my goal was."
Perhaps the sense of expectation over Bell was a hindrance at times. While he admits to having enjoyed the warm words and lofty predictions made for him in his teenage years, he also accepts there were times
"It was nice to hear people are talking you up," he said. "But probably, at times when it wasn't going right, I tried too hard to get to where people said I should be. That is at the back of your mind when you are a young player. Gradually, I've been able to get on with my cricket and not worry too much about that."
But Bell is well placed to offer advice to Sam Hain, the 18-year-old batsman who on Tuesday broke Bell's record as the youngest man to score a first-class century for Warwickshire. Like Bell a decade-and-a-half ago, much is being predicted of Hain.
"I'd tell him just 'enjoy the game'" Bell said. "He is a serious player, no doubt, and he just loves the game. I wouldn't change any of that.
"The minute you start to take it too seriously or put pressure on yourself, that's when it can be hard. He is the nicest young lad you will come across. Keep that, train as hard as you can and enjoy yourself. I think he has a future; everyone knows he has a future.
"When you see him scoring a century or the three debutants with England, you realise why you play the game in the first place. The key is to try to keep that as long as you can."
This milestone is significant for Bell. It marks not just his talent - a quality that has never been in doubt - but his resilience, his longevity and his contribution to a team that has won four Ashes series and been ranked No. 1 in the world. In recognition of the part his family played, he will celebrate with a dinner on Friday night at which his parents and brother, Keith, will be present.
One man who played a huge part in Bell's development will not be, though. Neal Abberley, the Warwickshire batting coach, spent longer honing Bell's game than anyone. The pair first met in the nets at Edgbaston when Bell was a schoolboy of around 10 years of age and, even after he became a Test player, it was Abberley he turned to whenever he returned to Edgbaston. But, after tens of thousands of throw downs and countless hours spent in the nets, Abberely died in the summer of 2011, just as Bell's batting was reaching its peak.
"I wish Neal Abberley could be here," Bell said. "He was somebody who was with me throughout my career and got me to where I am now. I still try to do things in the way we worked together.
"Graham Gooch is probably as close as I've come to the same relationship I had with Neal. They saw the game very similarly and gave me a lot of honest feedback, which sometimes you need. You don't just want people telling you what you want to hear; you need that honest criticism. They are always striving for more. I had a great relationship with both those guys. It will certainly be nice to share a beer with Graham at some point if he is here this week. I'll certainly try to do that at some point over the next few weeks."
But this is not really a time for looking back. Bell is an integral part of England's 'new era' and, as the senior man in the middle-order, will be required to contribute more than most of the previous 11 men to reach the 100 Test milestone managed in their landmark game.
"I hope there is a lot more to come," Bell said. "I'm certainly batting as well as I have in an England shirt. This is a different period in this England team. To win four Ashes and to win in India, they are the things I will look back on. We have done some good things.
"But I still think there are some special things around the corner."
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo