England v Pakistan, 1st Test, Lord's, 2nd day July 14, 2006

Bell too keen to cut and run?



Ian Bell: a century at Lord's, but still not secure in his own mind? © Getty Images

They said it would take three men to fill the boots of Andrew Flintoff, and so it has come to pass. A trio of centuries from the three most vulnerable members of England's batting line-up has left England's selectors with a potential poser ahead of the second Test at Old Trafford later this month. Except, of course, it hasn't. Because the third of the three, Ian Bell, has already declared himself out of the running.

Stand-in status isn't everyone's cup of tea, as Andrew Strauss would happily testify. But for Bell, one senses that the uncertainty that comes with a life on the fringes of selection is actually preferable to a role on centre stage. "I don't see it as a particularly difficult situation," he shrugged of his impending return to the shadows. "I've come in to replace Fred in this game and when he's fit, he plays."

That second part is, of course, a no-brainer. Flintoff is irreplaceable, and no fool would try to claim otherwise. But why such a willingness to give up the ghost after a century at Lord's, no less? If Paul Collingwood and Alastair Cook displayed the hunger and determination of two cricketers at very different stages of their careers, then Bell's attitude was something other-worldly. He wants it alright, but does he want it enough?

Cook's attitude could not have been more different. When asked during the Sri Lanka series about the impending return of Michael Vaughan, his eyes positively glowed at the mischief he was aiming to cause. "If you're in the shirt and you're scoring runs," he winked, "then that makes things very tough for the selectors."

In mitigation, Cook has yet to encounter failure. Bell, on the other hand, has been there, done that, and had his hair singed under the fiercest spotlight of all. After his shattering experience in the 2005 Ashes, it's little wonder he's claimed the spot in the corner and turned it into his own personal comfort zone. But at a time when England are crying out for new heroes to lead the new generation, it is a worry to find such diffidence in one so young and undeniably talented.

Some players quite simply look the part, commanding centre stage with a scowl or a smile or plain stony-faced concentration. That's not Bell's way at all. He wears an expression that invites assaults on his inner karma, as Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne so amply demonstrated last year. "All I want to do is succeed and play for England," he said, "but I need to find the right balance and not put too much pressure on myself to score runs all the time."



A rabbit in the allotment, or has Bell really got the bottle to succeed? © Getty Images

The curious thing about Bell is that his hunger for runs has already driven him to significant heights as a Test cricketer. After three Tests against West Indies and Bangladesh, he was averaging an unsustainable 297. Five blood-and-thunder Ashes Tests later, he had compiled seven single-figure scores in ten innings, including a pair in the defining match of his generation. He's been not so much the rabbit in the headlights as the rabbit in the allotment - stuffing himself silly on any bowling that's remotely green, but scarpering back to the hutch at the first sign of trouble.

Bell was a man in his element on the batsman-friendly wickets of Pakistan. He top-scored in the series with at least a fifty in each match, and on the featheriest-bed of all, at Faisalabad, he even made Kevin Pietersen look like the junior partner as they both compiled their second Test centuries. Pietersen's relative failings on that tour stemmed from his own impetuosity. By his own admission he found the wickets too slow, which, in a sense, is proof that Bell's patient approach should ultimately pay dividends.

And statistically, that is already the case. Today Bell went past 1000 runs in only his 15th Test, at the not-insubstantial average of 44.00, so we know he can play. So too does the Pakistan coach, Bob Woolmer, who nurtured him as a young No. 3 batsman at Warwickshire and reiterated today that he "oozes class". But the question marks endure about his temperament, not least in Bell's own opinion. His biggest failings have occurred in the team's biggest tests, against Australia and India, and after both series he was dropped, only to earn an early reprieve through injury.

"I don't know whether I put too much pressure on myself in India, but I guess I was more relaxed today," he conceded. "It was similar to [the series in] Pakistan when Vaughany was injured and went down quite late. You do see [the game] from a different point of view, and today I just went out and enjoyed the day, which I think is quite important for me to learn to do."

Enjoyment is a critical factor, for sure. It is clear, both in hindsight and at the time, that Bell needed to be dropped during the Ashes for his own well-being. Now, having recorded a Test century at Lord's - one of the ultimate highs of any cricketer's career - the axe is looming and he's actively encouraging the chop. Make of that what you will. Bell is one talented player, there's no doubt about that. But just how deeply has his psyche been scarred by what has gone before?

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo