Waiting for the punchline
It was March 1999, a dreary day at the equally dreary Westpac Trust Park in Hamilton. It was not a setting for inspiration or enlightenment. England Under-19s' six-week tour of New Zealand had come to a bizarre end, a bout of food poisoning depriving both sides of key players for the final one-day match.
It seemed like a good opportunity for a debriefing from Dayle Hadlee, New Zealand's academy director, the older brother of Sir Richard, and the coach of their Under-19 side. What had he thought of Ian Bell, England's baby-faced batsman, who hit a century and a ninety in the three-match "Test" series? "He's the best 16-year-old I've ever seen," said Hadlee.
It is a label that has stuck with Bell and has often hung heavy round his neck. Only now, nine years on from that tour, are we witnessing his flowering. The freckly, timid boy is maturing gradually into a still freckly, still occasionally timid man. And yet he is still not there. In Sri Lanka before Christmas he batted beautifully, matched among team-mates only by Michael Vaughan for pure class. As Kevin Pietersen's star dimmed towards the end of 2007, so Bell began to look like England's best batsman. He passed 50 three times in six innings but his top score was 83, made in the first innings of the series.
His failure to convert fifties into hundreds has been symptomatic of England's recent problems. It is not that he was not playing well; indeed the opposite. He has shown what he is capable of. He is on the cusp. He knows it and so does everyone else. Can he deliver on the promise? In other words, how good is Bell?
Bell does not look very different from how he did in 1999. He has grown physically, of course, but he is not an imposing figure. He has the sort of compact, athletic stature that is ideal for a batsman. His complexion is fair, his highlighted hair under a baseball cap which remains sculpted to his head throughout our interview. He talks more confidently now but on replaying the tape it is apparent how often he fails to finish a sentence. It is not because he is inarticulate - far from it. He is bright and chooses his words carefully, possibly too carefully. It is as if he is still wary of saying the wrong thing, wary of delivering the punchline. With his batting, it is the punchline we are waiting for, the tour de force that puts him in the highest echelon.
When it is put to him that Hadlee's comment all those years ago was quite a claim, he responds with an ironic "Ye-ah", half-laughing in bewilderment. Did it help or hinder his development? "It gave me some good exposure but it probably set me back a bit in terms of expectation. I could sense that people were targeting me in county cricket."
The best sportsmen are often ones who do not - or cannot - think about their craft too much. Bell would not come into that category. His self-consciousness is endearing, a very human, very normal quality. His willingness to talk about his shortcomings as well as successes make him a willing interviewee, even if his caution makes him a less spectacular interlocutor than, say, Pietersen.
Bell must be the only Englishman who could describe the 2005 Ashes as a low point. He admits to doubting himself throughout the series, and the Australians thought they could smell fear. "I was probably playing those guys [Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath] rather than the ball." There was much talk about his demeanour, about his bad body language. "It's something I wasn't great at earlier in my career," he says. "Top players send a message to opponents in everything they do, whether it be walking out to bat or taking guard.
"I had to learn to walk out with a bit of ..." One senses he wants to say swagger but is worried that might sound arrogant. He continues "... not ridiculously but something that sends a message."
"And that to me is as important as the way I bat." He has been mentored by Alec Stewart and Steve Bull, the England team psychologist. "I had to learn to walk out with a bit of ..." One senses he wants to say swagger but is worried that might sound arrogant. He continues "... not ridiculously but something that sends a message."
The return series in 2006-07 was a disaster for England but, paradoxically, a success for Bell, who made four fifties. He was still sledged mercilessly by Warne & Co, who labelled him "The Shermanator" after a ginger-haired geek in the teen movie American Pie. England carried Bell in 2005; 18 months on he was unable to carry them. His performances did not affect the outcome of either series. That has to change and he knows it. "I should have scored a hundred [in Sri Lanka]," he says. "I'm desperate to score a lot of runs for England. I look at guys like [Kumar] Sangakkara and [Mahela] Jayawardene and I want to do what they do - make an impact, change the face of a game."
Bell has been working closely with Andy Flower, England's batting coach - more closely, he says, than he did with Duncan Fletcher. "He has six Test hundreds and 17 Test fifties," says Flower. "That conversion rate isn't good enough. If he wants to be one of the best in the world, if he wants England to be one of the best in the world, then he's got to be tougher on himself and demand better results."
Flower, the former Zimbabwean wicketkeeper-batsman, retired with a Test average of 51. Here he was impressive: articulate, thoughtful, engaging and forthright, as those comments indicate. It was almost as if he were talking to Bell.
So can Bell do it? Can he be one of the best in the world? "He can definitely do it and I've got no doubt he will do it, to be honest," continues Flower. "He can do anything with a bat in his hand, and I think he's only just starting to realise that. He's got to realise his responsibility as one of the best batsmen in the England side and behave accordingly."
Nick Knight played with Bell for Warwickshire and has observed his development closely. He is equally sure that deliverance will come. "We saw that progression in county cricket and there's no question he will do the same in international cricket," Knight says. "He's so aware that he needs to be making big scores, but you can't preoccupy yourself with those thoughts. You just need to get on and play."
Knight empathises with Bell's occasional insecurity. "He's pretty comfortable with himself now. He has had a perfectly natural fear of failure. You just have to convince yourself that you can do it." Knight also raises the issue of Bell's lack of centuries when batting at No. 3 in Tests - though he has made nine fifties - and prefers him at No. 6. That may well be where Bell ends up in New Zealand now that Andrew Strauss is back.
Nasser Hussain reckons that Bell needs to be truer to himself at the crease. "He plays like Ian Bell until he gets to 50 and then he starts trying to play like Kevin Pietersen or Ricky Ponting. The tempo of his innings is always going in one direction. He should bat the same way between 50 and 100 and then 100 and 150 and so on." By contrast, Bell says he became withdrawn in the second Test at Colombo (when he scored 15 in 80 minutes) because "10% of my mind is thinking, we need to get 500 here; so I played within myself."
It is apparent from talking to Bell that he is utterly devoted to cricket and to self-improvement. For some players talking about the game can seem a chore. Hearing Bell talk about preparing to play Murali - how he went about trying to work him out, his sessions with Flower - was to hear a truly dedicated professional but also a passionate cricket nut who has been on Warwickshire's radar since he was ten and refers to the late Bob Woolmer, a former county coach of his, as "a Bear through and through".
Bell and Flower both mention the Australian Michael Clarke - a near contemporary of Bell's - by way of comparison when talking about playing spinners. Clarke did not make a seamless progression into the international game, but it seems that the limelight and its pressures are a bit more to his taste.
For Bell that self-belief does not come so naturally. It has to be acquired by achievement. Two mediocre seasons of county championship cricket in 2002 and 2003, when he averaged 24 and 29 with a single hundred, led to a winter playing for the University of Western Australia on the advice of John Inverarity, the West Australian who was Warwickshire coach at the time. "I had been trying too hard and that winter freed me up mentally and got me enjoying batting again," says Bell.
He made his Test debut at the end of the following summer, one in which he scored 1714 first-class runs at 68. He has looked back since but only fleetingly. The forward progress has not been unfettered but it has been consistent. He has all the equipment to make the next step. Everyone knows it - but does Bell?
John Stern is editor of The Wisden Cricketer. This article was first published in the March 2008 issue of The Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here