England v Australia, 5th Test, The Oval, 1st day

Bell rediscovers his ugly side

Andrew Miller at The Oval

August 20, 2009

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Ian Bell is targeted with the short ball, England v Australia, 5th Test, The Oval, 1st day, August 20, 2009
Ian Bell ducks and weaves during an innings that, though cut short of a hundred, showed plenty of grit © PA Photos
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Ian Bell and Churchillian rhetoric do not tend to belong in the same sentence - in fact, chinchillian would be an adjective more befitting of such a mousy character. But never mind the blithe assumptions that can be taken from this latest unfulfilled performance. Today's innings of 72 from 137 balls could yet prove to have been his finest hour.

In the course of Bell's 49-Test career, he has somehow managed to subvert that old adage: "It's not how, it's how many" and turn it to his advantage. His average, which today climbed back above the 40 mark, has so often been massaged by soft runs in irrelevant circumstances, providing a statistical whitewash for the numerous occasions when everything has been at stake, and he has been nowhere to be seen - most recently, but far from exclusively, his twin failures in that fourth-Test humiliation at Headingley.

Today, however, Bell fronted up for his country when the need has rarely been greater: in an Ashes decider at the scene of his single greatest Test failure, no less. And while he himself baulked at the suggestion that atoning for his two ducks in the series decider in 2005 had been a significant motivating factor ("It doesn't make sense to look back, it's a different attack, and I'm a different player"), it's a safe bet that everyone at The Oval, fans and opponents included, were fully aware of that little notch in his statistics.

While the "how many" of his performance reads like yet another broken promise, the "how" gave notice of a steely side that has all too often been absent from his career. He had to struggle and survive, and for two determined sessions he did just that, only to succumb - to knowing tuts up and down the country - to a tentative prod to his first ball after the tea break.

"It was frustrating not to go on and get a hundred, but I was pretty pleased with the way I played," said Bell. "It was tricky at first, we had to graft it out and it was some ugly cricket at times, but that's what was needed early on. We had to fight hard, it didn't feel like the usual Oval wicket where sometimes, when you get in, it's a lovely place to bat. It was frustrating and pretty slow really."

An indication of the importance of Bell's innings came from the speed with which the innings unravelled once he was gone. Five wickets in the final session hauled Australia back to parity and more, and yet, in a point he felt justified in labouring, England do at least have 300 runs in the bank already, on a wicket that is puffing more dust than the shifting sands of the Kalahari.

For all the justifiable accusations of frivolity that fly Bell's way, he is a player who likes to graft with the best of them. One of his earliest Test hundreds, which also happened to be one of his best, came in Faisalabad on the 2005-06 tour of Pakistan, when he managed to make his fellow centurion Kevin Pietersen look a headstrong rookie cop. Then as now Bell withstood a ferocious early barrage (for Mitchell Johnson read Shoaib Akhtar), and emerged from the onslaught with his confidence and determination ramped up in equal measures.

A similar scenario panned out today. There was nowhere for Bell to hide when he came to the crease at 12 for 1 in the sixth over, having been promoted to No. 3 in the order where he has thrived for Warwickshire but shirked for England, averaging 31.00 in 16 previous Tests.

"No. 3 is something I've done for Warwickshire for a long time, and I've had a lot of success," he said. "I want to keep improving for England, and at the back of my mind it's a position I want to crack and make my own. But today is not about me and what I want to achieve, this is about the team. It's all about England, going out as a team, and putting in a great performance this week."

Nor was there an opportunity for Bell to slipstream a senior colleague (as was the case during his last finest innings for England, his 199 against South Africa at Lord's in 2008). If anything, the reverse was true. While Bell ducked and weaved to the whims of his nemesis Johnson, Strauss at the other end slid serenely to his half-century.

"I knew [the short balls] were something that was going to be thrown my way, and that Johnson would be on pretty quickly after I got to the crease," said Bell, who was dispatched by Johnson in both innings of the fourth Test. "But I've done a lot of work in the last week, certainly after Headingley, to find a method that works.

"At The Oval you know you're going to get more pace and bounce than in other parts of England, so sometimes when you do get short-pitched bowling it's not the worst thing in the world," he said. "After a while you start to get the pace of the wicket a little bit easier, and I don't think the short ball got many wickets today, it was more the length balls that did the damage."

Hindsight will be the only fair means of assessing an innings from Bell in which, for once, his returns were less than the sum of the efforts he put in, and to his credit, he accepts he has a few doubters still to win over. "It's going to take more than one innings to change people's opinions," he said. "It's a matter of doing that over a long period of time.

"But I've been working really hard on making sure that it's not just the easy runs I get, it's the hard runs, and making sure that when it counts, like this morning, you get in and see through the early sessions and the new ball. I'm pretty pleased with how I played, but if you're going to be hyper-critical, I think I need to go on and score hundreds. As a team we've only got one and that's not a good enough stat in this series."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

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© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by RaghuramanR on (August 21, 2009, 17:39 GMT)

I am not sure of all the rants about England's impending loss at Oval. Boycott doesnt think England can win. Chappell thinks England is not doing too well. I think 'experts' are better off commenting on the events that transpired, rather than 'predictions' because they are ever found to be wanting. I mentioned during the first test at Cardiff that Australia is likely to lose because their bowling is not strong and batting is equally suspect. A team whose batting and bowling are suspect cant be expected to win a series :o Especially for England, Strauss, Collingwood and Anderson were the key for this series, though Bell, Swann and Broad have come with key contributions.

Posted by Waikato_FC on (August 21, 2009, 11:06 GMT)

The comment from shamoni indicates someone with an axe to grind and no knowledge of the game. Yes Bell has flattered to deceive on a number of previous occassions, but his innings (which I might add is England's highest score) was full of grit and graft, something his colleagues failed to show. He stood up and was counted, and credit is due to him. Sadly, he seems destined to never receive the positive press he deserves.

Posted by pr3m on (August 21, 2009, 10:04 GMT)

Ian Bell is probably the worst Number 3 batsmen in the world, except the Bangladeshi guy. His innings last evening wasn't at all his doing, and he could have been out many times in the early stages if he wasn't so lucky.

Posted by boris6491 on (August 21, 2009, 0:50 GMT)

Cricket may revolve around a certain element called 'luck' but Bell's innings took that to another level. Agreed, 'how many' is superior in importance to 'how' although the 'how' factor gives an indication as to a batsman's state of mind, current form and ability to play the the top level. Bell seems to be uncomfortable in that position, maybe in form in FC cricket (but not in international) and time and time again, increases the credibility of the argument that he is not an international player however prolifically he may score for Warwickshire. His entire innings literally comprised of edges or unsure strokes which went safely into gaps and a constant struggle against the short ball particularly against Johnson. I really feel Bell needs to truly prove himself with a solid innings in a vital game. This may be a vital game but that was certainly not a solid innings.

Posted by 2.14istherunrate on (August 20, 2009, 22:55 GMT)

The knives were out big time,long and sharp ones ready to be plunged in deep, so really Bell did brilliantly in fronting up,surviving and playing good shots in the process. The sword of Damocles has moved to Cook now,and stays with Collingwood.

Posted by Simmy567 on (August 20, 2009, 22:37 GMT)

Bell is a class player, but he doesn't seem to perform, unless there is someone else with him. I don't think that he has ever been a lone centurion in a single innings for england.

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Andrew Miller Andrew Miller was saved from a life of drudgery in the City when his car caught fire on the way to an interview. He took this as a sign and fled to Pakistan where he witnessed England's historic victory in the twilight at Karachi (or thought he did, at any rate - it was too dark to tell). He then joined Wisden Online in 2001, and soon graduated from put-upon photocopier to a writer with a penchant for comment and cricket on the subcontinent. In addition to Pakistan, he has covered England tours in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, as well as the World Cup in the Caribbean in 2007
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