May 31, 2013

Bell's struggle for runs

After an outstanding run-spree in 2010 and 2011, Ian Bell has had a lean spell since 2012, which seems to have pushed him into a shell

Over the last year and a half, Ian Bell has been struggling for batting form. This phase started with England's Test series against Pakistan in the UAE, in which Bell was expected to play a key role given his proficiency against spin. What transpired was quite the opposite, as Bell managed a total of 51 runs in six innings for an average of 8.50, falling four times to Saeed Ajmal and twice to Umar Gul.

Since then, Bell has played six series and never looked close to his best, save against West Indies' fairly friendly attack at home, when he scored 222 runs and was dismissed just twice. Despite that series, Bell's average over his last 19 Tests is a disappointing 32.07, with only once century in 34 innings, in a draw against India in Nagpur. Even that Nagpur century came in the last innings of the series, after his previous five innings had fetched only 56 runs. Excluding the home series against West Indies, Bell's average during this period falls to 26 from 16 Tests.

Before this slump in the last 18 months, though, Bell had the most prolific phase of his career, a period when he averaged 81.86 in 20 Tests over a two-year period, with eight centuries in 28 innings. That phase had started with the tour to South Africa in 2009-10, when Bell played two substantial innings in difficult conditions: 140 in Durban to set up a victory, and 78 in Cape Town to save the game. After a couple of easy series against Bangladesh, in which Bell filled his boots scoring 406 runs in five innings, he passed the Ashes test in fine style too, amassing 329 in six innings. Following two more run-filled home series against Sri Lanka and India in 2011, Bell would have gone into that series against Pakistan full of confidence, but what's happened since then isn't quite what he would have anticipated.

England will be especially concerned because the Ashes is round the corner, and Bell is a key member of the middle order. One of the aspects of his batting that has been perplexing is his scoring rate recently: in these last 17 months, Bell's strike rate has been a sluggish 37 runs per 100 balls; in the previous 20 Tests it had been 58, and over his entire career it's 49.56. That means that while Bell has been spending fairly long periods at the crease, he hasn't been able to convert that into runs on the board. During this lean phase he has averaged 86 deliveries per dismissal, which would have fetched him about 43 runs had he scored at his career strike rate of 49.56. However, his slow scoring rate means he's only making 32 runs in those deliveries.

Ian Bell's Test career
Period Tests Runs Average Strike rate 100s/ 50s Balls per dismissal
Till Dec 15, 2009 49 3144 39.79 49.95 8/ 21 79.67
Dec 16, 2009 to Dec 2011 20 1883 81.86 58.09 8/ 7 140.91
Since Jan 1, 2012 19 898 32.07 37.12 1/ 7 86.39
Career 88 5925 45.57 49.56 17/ 35 91.95

During the phase when he was at his best, Bell was solid against all types of bowling. He averaged almost 74 against right-arm pace, more than 300 against right-arm spin, 51 against left-arm pace and 76 against left-arm spin. Among the bowlers he dominated during that period were Peter Siddle - 104 runs off 126 balls, no dismissals - Ishant Sharma - 112 off 173, two dismissals - and Rangana Herath, off whom he scored 84 from 116 balls without being out. The bowlers who troubled him during that period were Dale Steyn - 2 for 67 off 123 balls - Morne Morkel - 2 for 33 off 119 - and Mitchell Johnson - 2 for 39 off 106.

Since 2012, though, lesser bowlers than those mentioned above have got the better of Bell. The one who has dominated him most thoroughly is a bowler of rare class - Saeed Ajmal had figures of 4 for 17 off 50 balls in the Test series in the UAE - but he's got out to Neil Wagner (3 for 48), Jacques Kallis (2 for 29) and even Kane Williamson (2 for 45). Overall, right-arm pace seems to have been his biggest problem during this period: he averages 23.64 against them, and has been dismissed by them 14 times. Apart from Kallis, Gul (2 for 1), Vernon Philander (2 for 17), and Tim Southee (2 for 49) are the right-arm seamers who've dismissed him twice.

Bell v different types of bowlers, between Dec 2009 and 2011
Bowler type Runs scored Balls Dismissals Average Run rate
Right-arm pace 957 1688 13 73.61 3.40
Right-arm spin 317 457 1 317.00 4.16
Left-arm pace 152 301 3 50.67 3.02
Left-arm spin 455 793 6 75.83 3.44
Bell v different types of bowlers, since Jan 2012
Bowler type Runs Balls Dismissals Average Run rate
Right-arm pace 331 863 14 23.64 2.30
Right-arm spin 303 630 7 43.28 2.88
Left-arm pace 117 368 3 39.00 1.90
Left-arm spin 147 558 4 36.75 1.58

In the last year and a half, Bell's problem has been both getting starts and converting them into substantial scores. In 34 innings, he has fallen for single-digit scores ten times, and between 10 and 19 seven times, which means half his innings have ended before 20. He has also been dismissed six times between scores of 22 and 31, which usually suggest he has played himself in before getting out. And obviously, the centuries have been elusive - there were eight in 28 innings between December 2009 and 2011, but only one in 34 innings since then.

Spread of Bell's scores
Period Inngs Sub-10 scores* Between 10-19 20-49 50-99 100+
Dec 2009-Dec 2011 28 5 2 6 7 8
Jan 2012 onwards 34 10 7 8 7 1
* Dismissals only

Bell's lack of form has coincided with a general dip in the performances of most England batsmen. None of them have averaged 50 or more since the beginning of 2012, with Alastair Cook being the only one with a 45-plus average. Trott had an ordinary 2012 (though he has come back strongly this year), Nick Compton has been inconsistent at the top of the order, while Jonny Bairstow has had a mixed run as well. With two Ashes series coming up over the next eight months, England could do with an in-form Ian Bell, who scores plenty of runs, and scores them pretty quickly too.

England's batsmen in Tests since Jan 2012
Batsman Tests Runs Average Strike rate 100s/ 50s
Alastair Cook 20 1656 47.31 42.84 6/ 3
Jonathan Trott 20 1486 42.45 44.78 3/ 9
Kevin Pietersen 16 1138 42.14 63.46 3/ 5
Matt Prior 20 1131 43.50 55.60 1/ 8
Ian Bell 19 898 32.07 37.12 1/ 7
Nick Compton 9 479 31.93 34.68 2/ 1
Joe Root 6 424 42.40 42.57 1/ 2
Jonny Bairstow 8 341 31.00 54.82 0/ 3

S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo. Follow him on Twitter