Stern Words November 9, 2006

The defining time

John Stern on Ian Bell - blessed by exceptional talent, cursed by the burden of expectation

Ian Bell: has nowhere near fulfilled his potential ... how much more there is to give we will find out in the next two months. © Getty Images
Ian Bell is one of the unfortunate ones. Blessed by exceptional talent, he has been cursed by the burden of expectation since he was a schoolboy. He has played 18 Tests and, though he averages 47, faces the defining series of his career.

Is he the English Rahul Dravid or the new Mark Ramprakash? Is he a stylish accumulator with the appetite for big and important scores or is he too encumbered by doubt and the pressure of delivering on early promise ever to fulfil his obvious potential?

Bell is by no means certain to play in the Ashes despite three hundreds in successive Tests against Pakistan in 2006. His seven single-figure scores in last year's Ashes have cast a shadow of doubt over his ability to cut it against the best in the world. Meanwhile Paul Collingwood's emergence as a tough nut to crack leave England with a selection dilemma in their middle order.

Bell should play and England need him to succeed if they are to have serious aspirations to be the best team in the world. In this post-Thorpe, post-Vaughan (probably), they need another all-round, all-condition class act in the middle order.

Collingwood offers a stop-gap option. He might even score more runs in the Ashes than Bell. But Collingwood has fulfilled his potential and then some. He is 30 years old. There cannot be much more to give. Bell has nowhere near fulfilled his potential. How much more there is to give we will find out in the next two months.

Collingwood might well save you a match but how likely is he to win one. Bell is talented enough to do that. But can he? Does he believe he can? At 16 he was prepared to answer back to rough-edged New Zealand Under-19 bowlers who sledged him when he hit them through the covers for four. He didn't look ready or willing to do that any Australian last summer.

He appears to have matured in the past 12 months. He has tried to change his body language. He runs on to the field now, sometimes he swings his arms. At the crease he pulls up his shirt sleeves like Kevin Pietersen. But it remains to be seen whether these are meaningless affectations or whether they are genuine changes that have a positive effect on his batting. The real test is yet to come. In the harsh realities of separating the good from the quite good, his centuries against a weakened Pakistan attack don't count for as much as anyone who watched them would like. One hundred in meaningful circumstances down under would eclipse all of his previous runs in 2006.

There is an intensity to Bell that is both admirable and disconcerting at the same time. You can tell from Collingwood's demeanour that he is playing every game as if it could be his last. Bell has looked like that but not in a good way. Bell suffers from the burden of expectation. Collingwood long since got that monkey off his back. He is having the time of his life. He never played another Test, hell at least he's played this many. If Bell never plays another Test, an 18-match career would look like failure - to him and to the ECB, whose talent-spotting scheme marked him out for greatness at the earliest opportunity.

Bell might not be a bar-emptier but, as Nasser Hussain said recently, he is incapable of scoring ugly runs. Ten years of Ian Bell would be great for England and would be worth watching too.

John Stern is editor of The Wisden Cricketer