Top Performer - Ian Bell August 9, 2006

Blessed are the meek

This week's Top Performer is Ian Bell



Ian Bell: confident and classy, with no histrionics © Getty Images
It's been a week for batting feats, with Mahela Jayawardene claiming yet more glory in Colombo, Mohammad Yousuf and Younis Khan shredding all manner of partnership records at Headingley, and Andrew Strauss proving that, where cricketers are concerned, attention-grabbing conversions need not only be of the religious type, having turned his 16th Test fifty into his tenth Test hundred - a ratio bettered by only five batsmen in Test history.

Ian Bell might shrug his shoulders and regard it all as a little bit typical. No sooner has he made his first big mark on the world game, others come along and deflect his glory. But this week is a week for the meek, because if Bell doesn't get his recognition now, one wonders whether it will ever come along. This past month, the wallflower in England's dressing-room party has become the strutting, jiving, disco diva, having racked up three centuries in consecutive Tests, and four in five outings against the Pakistanis, opponents he would surely love to play every week.

Aesthetically, it was the second of these, at Old Trafford, that really stood out from the crowd, as he latched onto the match situation perfectly and set England up for a timely declaration. But at Headingley the situation was ever so slightly different, with England at make-or-break point on 192 for 4. "It could have gone either way," Bell rightly pointed out afterwards. "Another couple of wickets and then we'd have been in trouble."

But there was never any danger of that, as he caressed the ball through the covers with a languid ease, and climbed into the short ball as if he had all the time in the world. All of a sudden the diffidence that had left him paralysed against Australia was being seen in a different light. He is quiet and unassuming, and that's precisely why he was such an asset at that particular moment of England's innings. No fireworks, no histrionics. Just good, solid, classy batsmanship.

So what happens now? There is one more Test, at The Oval, to come, and then thoughts turn towards this winter's Ashes. And Bell, who managed seven single-figure scores in ten innings of last year's series, is suddenly right back at the forefront of the selector's thoughts, having only a month ago been right back in steerage at best, when it came to seat allocation for the plane trip Down Under.

"I believe I've come back tougher," he insisted, after being dropped for the Sri Lanka series at the start of the summer. "I worked on my body language, without crossing the line into arrogance, and I'm determined not to give my wicket away." His gleeful leap upon reaching three figures was evidence of a new, better rounded version of a batsman who had previously been too obsessed with succeeding to remember to enjoy the journey to the summit.

Perhaps the best endorsement of his new-found confidence is that Bell has made the No. 6 position his own. Andrew Flintoff has not yet been missed from England's middle-order. It's as if he'd accidentally been standing on Bell's head all along.

The numbers
The mark of a class batsman is the ability to play the on-drive, a shot that requires timing, footwork, balance and a keen eye for the ball. Bell's innings simply peppered the long-on boundary, as he worked the ball down the ground whenever the bowlers overpitched. He enjoyed one slice of luck with an edged four through the slips, but otherwise the rest of his runs came through the covers or past point.

What he says
"I don't know whether I put too much pressure on myself, but all I want to do is succeed and play for England. I need to find the right balance and not worry about scoring runs all the time." Bell, after his first century at Lord's, when he had been recalled as a late replacement for Flintoff. He seems to have got it just about right now.

What they say
"If the worst comes to the worst and the scourge of the Aussies last summer is forced to sit out this winter's Ashes showdown, all is not lost. Because emerging from Freddie's sizeable shadow is a man Shane Warne and company would do well not to ignore." Move over Superman, here comes ... err ... Superted? Either way, The People's correspondent, Paul McCarthy, is already convinced that a new hero is on the block. And maybe, so should the rest of us.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo