July 9, 2013

Foolish to write off any Australian side

In the first of a series of columns on the Ashes, the England middle-order batsman looks back at his performances in the mother of all contests

2005: England won 2-1
Bell: Five Tests, 171 runs at 17.10, two half-centuries
This series was a huge reality check to me. I had played three Tests before it and they had gone very well. But I had never faced any of this Australian attack before, not in first-class cricket, and Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath were outstanding.

It was a shock. Both of them were probably past their peak by then, but it was a different level from anything I'd faced before. Australia were No. 1 in the world and this side remains, alongside South Africa in 2012, the best team I have faced in my international career.

In retrospect, aged 22 or 23, I'm not sure I was ready for that level of cricket. I didn't score the runs a top-order batsman should score and, of course, it left me with doubts over my ability to play at that level. I had scored runs in county cricket, scored runs in my first three Tests, but came up against an attack that could expose any little weakness. The experience of facing them probably prepared me well for later in my career, and I did at least score two half-centuries at Old Trafford that reassured me about my ability to succeed at that level.

But even though I would have liked to have scored more heavily, I look back on that series very fondly. Just to be a part of something that captured the public imagination to that extent was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and the Test at Edgbaston was probably still the best Test I have played in.

2006-07: Australia won 5-0
Bell: Five Tests, 331 runs at 33.10, four half-centuries
I felt well-established in the side by the time my first Ashes tour started. I had five Test centuries behind me and I had been the top scorer against a strong bowling attack in the series in Pakistan a year earlier.

I played pretty well in that Ashes series too, making four half-centuries and proving to myself I could do well at that level. But the tour was a huge disappointment. We lost our leader, Michael Vaughan, before we even started, which was a massive blow, and then Marcus Trescothick was forced out as well.

We were thumped in the warm-up games and our form as a team wasn't what it had been in 2005. We still felt confident and played some good cricket, but the collapse on the final day in Adelaide - there's no way we should have lost that game - was a real blow and we never recovered. Personally, though, I felt I had shown - to myself as much as anyone - that I had improved since 2005 and that I could score runs against bowlers of that quality.

2009: England won 2-1
Bell: Three Tests, 140 runs at 28, two half-centuries
I had been dropped ahead of that series. We were bowled out for 51 in Jamaica and I was left out as a result. It hurt massively. But it probably proved the turning point of my career. Andy Flower wanted me to go away, get as fit as I could, work on a few things and come back better and stronger. I always felt he rated me.

Maybe I had been overthinking my game, but I came back with a less cluttered mind, scored heavily in county cricket, then scored 50 in my first innings back, at Edgbaston, and played what I thought, at the time, was my best innings against Australia, in the final Test, at The Oval. I came in at No. 3 and made 72 in the first innings as we built a platform that won the game.

My figures since I was recalled for that series - I've played 42 Tests and averaged 52.16 with nine centuries - are very good and compare favourably with my record before: 46 Tests, an average of 40.59 and eight centuries.

I don't think I was ever complacent. But being dropped was a reminder that I was in danger of losing everything I had cherished. It also gave me an opportunity to work on the mental and physical side of my game.

2010-11: England won 3-1
Bell: Five Tests, 329 runs at 65.80, three half-centuries, one hundred

When I look back on my career, that tour will seem very special. Everything went well: our preparation was perfect and I scored my first Ashes century, in Sydney. We went into the warm-up games looking to win, not just for practice. We played at as high intensity as possible so that when we went into the Tests, we weren't trying to go up a gear, we were already there.

We scored a lot of runs at the top of the order, but I felt I was in as good form in that series and into the series against India as I have ever felt in international cricket. It was an incredible tour.

I think players of both sides would agree that this is still the biggest Test series we play in. Winning in India was huge, but the Ashes are still special. It would be foolish for anyone to write off any Australian team. They have a good bowling attack and, with the Dukes ball, should be able to swing it all day. I expect it to be a tough series. I have felt in decent form for a while, but I seem to be going through a period of getting myself out. It's been frustrating.

Ian Bell was speaking to George Dobell

A fixture in England's middle order for almost a decade, Ian Bell has played in three Ashes-winning sides