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July 28, 2009
Some men fill a room with their aura as soon as they step into it, others seem to shrink when all eyes turn towards them. Kevin Pietersen, who has been ruled out of the rest of the Ashes after undergoing an operation on his Achilles tendon, falls emphatically into the former category. The challenge for Ian Bell, the man who will replace him at No. 4 in Thursday's third Test at Edgbaston, is to prove he does not belong exclusively in the latter.
It's hard to envisage two more contrasting characters in the entire England set-up, and you'd certainly never have imagined either man being earmarked as a like-for-like replacement for the other. But that's how it's set to pan out this summer, with Bell earning his Test recall through Pietersen's misfortune, but deserving it as well on the back of a 60-plus average for Warwickshire in the County Championship.
"I do have a lot to offer to England," said Bell, who has missed each of his country's last eight Test matches since February, the longest period he has spent out of the side since making his debut in 2004. "When you've played and become a regular, and that gets taken away from you, I think that tells you how much it means to you, and how much you miss it. You do a lot of thinking inside about what you want to do when you get that next opportunity. This is an opportunity I probably didn't think I was going to get this summer, and hopefully I'll take it with both hands.
"Of course, with someone like Kev, he's a world-class player and you're going to miss that," he said, "but we know as a batting unit what we have to do to win this Test match. We all have our own sort of tempo, Kev has his methods, I have my methods and strengths, and I have to play to them. I can't go out and play like Kev, I've just got to go out there and think about how I want to score my runs, and make sure we get a good first-innings score."
Aside from the identity of the man he has to replace, the circumstances couldn't really be better for Bell. England have a lead in the series thanks to their historic win at Lord's; Australia's bowlers are low on confidence after a shocking and decisive display in the first innings of that match, and the third Test is taking place at Bell's home ground of Edgbaston, a venue where bat has dominated ball for two seasons solid. In the post-Warne and McGrath era, he has a glorious opportunity to improve upon a ten-match Test record of 502 runs at 25.10 against Australia, which is more than 15 runs below his overall Test average.
"I know that my record against Australia is the weakest out of all the countries I have played, and that's up to me now to turn around," he said. "It's a new-look Australia to the one I've played in the past, and it's up to me now to go out and perform, and contribute to the team by playing well in this Test match. It doesn't worry me what other people think, I just have to get myself ready [because] I know how I can play at my best." It would be quite some development for Bell to emerge as the hero of England's Ashes summer. Four years ago in his first full season of international cricket, he batted once again in that No. 4 position, and struggled to seven single-figure scores in ten Ashes innings. Eighteen months later, his returns improved to the tune of four half-centuries in five Tests, but his image did not, as Shane Warne handed him the geeky nickname of "Shermanator", a taunt that resurfaced in his newspaper column this week.
"Warne's a legend, what more can you say about the guy?" said Bell in response. "I think he's tried to pick on the whole of the England team, and this week it's been my week to cop a bit. I don't have to play against Shane Warne this week, so he can say what he wants, but if I want to get rid of that name tag I have to play well against Australia, and that's fact. I've played well against other teams in the world, and now I have to do it against the 11 guys out there."
Even though the reputation of the bowling attack is several notches lower than Bell has previously experienced in Ashes competition, he's not a character who's likely to get complacent in a hurry. "Warne and McGrath are legends of the game, but this is a good Australia side as they showed at Cardiff," he said. "You can't just walk into a Test match against Australia and do what you want. You have to get stuck in and work hard for everything, and I fully expect that against this team, even though they haven't got Warne and McGrath."
The players within the current Australian set-up are rather more diplomatic in their opinion of Bell than their former team-mate, although Michael Clarke did allude to the possibility that they were rather pleased to have him in their sights rather than Pietersen. "England will be disappointed to lose Kevin," said Clarke. "Any time a very good player is no longer playing it will give the team a boost, but it's important we concentrate on Ian. He is a wonderful player and has been successful around the world. We have to study Ian and look at where he scores his runs. We know he's a good player."
Whatever happens this week, Bell believes he is fighting fit for the challenge, a legacy of the strenuous fitness work he put in during England's tour of the Caribbean in February and March. After being made a scapegoat for England's humiliation at Kingston in the opening Test of the series, Bell did not play again in the series, and instead worked hard with Reg Dickason, the team's security advisor, boxing on the beach at 6 o'clock in the morning, and using a rare break from the front line to work on an area of his game that goes beyond mere batting practice.
"Reg helped me through for two months that could have gone either way," said Bell. "I could have been sitting on my bum not doing a lot, or getting up and making sure that by the time the England season came around I was physically ready to just worry about cricket, and nothing else. By the end of our sessions I'd be on my knees, but Reg was good to me, he wanted to work me hard and by the time the season came around I'd used that opportunity to absolutely nail something that, with the amount of cricket we play, we don't often get that window to do."
The circumstances of Bell's axing in the Caribbean provided a particular spur for his sparring sessions. A loose shot on the stroke of lunch on the fourth day at Sabina Park set in motion a collapse of such dramatic proportions that the game was all over by tea, with England rolled over for an embarrassing 51. "After Jamaica, a Test like that, your last Test, there are a lot of thoughts in there about how you want to carry on. There was a lot of motivation in there for wanting to train hard that winter, so that I could take my opportunity."
Even after the training, Bell still had to wait, and the size of the task he faced to get back in the side was brought home to him on the first day of England's home season against West Indies at Lord's in May, a fixture he had not missed since 2006. "The first time the guys walked out [of the pavilion], watching that on the screen here at Edgbaston, really hit home to me what it means to be involved in a Test match for your country. Because of the game I was playing here, I very quickly had to get that out of my mind, but for [the] first ten minutes I couldn't think of anything else. That told me how much it hurt."
And so it all comes down to the chance he has before him. A clear run through to September is his if he wants it, with Pietersen laid low and few other contenders making their presence known on the county circuit. "At 27, I still have a lot to offer international cricket," said Bell. "I thought I'd have to wait a lot longer to get this opportunity, but this is a chance I've got to go and show people how good a player I am."
Stats highlights from the fourth ODI between India and West Indies in Dharamsala