England news May 10, 2014

Bell must shape new England

Ian Bell's fifty against Scotland, and the match as a whole, will not linger long in the memory but calmness and maturity were just what England needed

Ian Bell's breakthrough innings did not come against South Africa. It did not come against Australia. It did not even come against Sussex. It came against Shropshire.

It was May 2004. Bell was 22 years old and, though his talent was undoubted, his lack of progress was beginning to frustrate the management at Edgbaston. John Inverarity, at the time the Warwickshire director of cricket, even considered dropping Bell from a strong battling unit that was struggling to find room for the abundance of talent the club possessed at the time. "It's all very well having talent," Inverarity said in exasperation at the time, "at some stage you have to shape games."

As it was, the team that contested that second round game of the Cheltenham and Gloucester Trophy did not contain either Michael Powell or Jim Troughton and Bell was given another chance to prove himself.

He responded with a Man-of-the-Match winning performance. On a damp, two-paced wicket which reduced every other batsman to ugly swipes and ineffective heaves - Nick Knight, at the time arguably the most successful ODI batsman England had ever had, battled his way to an unbeaten 22 from 57 balls - Bell timed the ball with a grace granted to very few and made an elegant, unbeaten 58 from 37 balls. While he caressed 12 boundaries, his team-mates contributed just six between them. He looked a class apart.

With confidence - and position - restored, he went on to score an unbeaten 262 against a strong Sussex attack a couple of weeks later. It was an innings that gained the attention of the selectors and the media and, by the end of the summer, Bell was playing Test cricket. Sometimes, what seems trivial at the time can have far grander consequences.

There were echoes of that innings against Shropshire in Bell's half-century against Scotland. While the bowling was not especially demanding, the pitch conditions were. No-one else in the match made a half-century; no-one else timed the ball as sweetly. This was a situation that had all the ingredients for an upset - the shortened match, the damp pitch and sodden outfield, the tension of a team beaten more often than a snare drum finding their way under a new coach - but thanks to Bell's class and calm head, the accident was averted.

It says much for Bell's limited-overs career that he became, during his innings in Aberdeen, the second highest run-scorer in England's ODI history but that for most of that career, his place in the limited-overs teams has been questioned. Perhaps because of the apparent ease with which the runs have flowed, more is often expected of him. But since his return to the ODI side in the summer of 2012 his record - 1,451 runs at an average of 46.80 - is excellent.

We should not have been surprised by Bell's contribution in Aberdeen. The days when he might be considered a luxury player - pretty but inconsequential - are long gone. If he had not proved his backbone with defiant contributions in South Africa, he surely did so with his Man-of-the-Series winning efforts in the Ashes of 2013.

Bell would be the first to admit that his reputation was forged, in part, on the back of some pretty runs on flat tracks. As he put it following his Championship century against Sussex a few weeks ago: "In my early days, maybe I scored a lot of nice runs that looked good on the eye but really didn't change the course of the game. But in the last two, three or four years, I've started to score those [important] runs a lot more often. The way last summer went against Australia really gave me a lot of confidence - I came in at 20 for 3 a lot."

Now with most of the senior figures of the England dressing room gone - Andy Flower, Graeme Swann, Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen - Bell will assume more responsibility. He will be expected to lead, on and off the pitch. He will be the man England turn to in trouble; the man who will shape games.

He is batting better than ever. It is not that he is timing the ball anymore sweetly or has discovered a new range of strokes; he had most of them anyway. And it is not that he is any more likely to make ugly runs; he is hardly capable of an ugly stroke. It is that he has fully embraced his role and responsibilities. He is prepared to graft and wait and work and fight.

It was a message he reiterated following Friday's victory in Aberdeen. Asked about the upheaval in the England camp over recent months, Bell responded with comments that showed much of the talk of coaches and team environment to be, to him at least, largely irrelevant.

"The players have to stand up and score runs and take wickets no matter who's coaching," Bell said. "That's the important thing.

"Giving responsibility to the players is going to be important. It's about the players standing up and winning games for England.

"In any sport the management can only do so much. They can get you ready but they can't do anything once you've crossed the line and responsibility comes down to the players. It's a big challenge for the senior players now helping the young guys come through and getting this team gelled. We saw with Australia how quickly a team can turn things around and we've got to believe we can do it, too."

It was the talk of a man who will not hide behind excuses, who will not hide behind potential and hope in the future. It was the talk of a man who knows that his own future and that of the England team is now entwined. If England are to prosper, Bell will have to shape a lot more game over the next few years. And he is revelling in the responsibility. Aged 32 and with a fine career behind him, it may well be that the best is yet to come.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo