July 17, 2013

Unassuming Bell begins to growl

He has always possessed skill and style but his recent success is owed to cussedness and patience

So now they stand together, slender shoulder to slender shoulder, the three most visually seductive English batsmen of my lifetime: David Gower, Michael Vaughan, and Ian Bell. Bracketed on 18 Test centuries, the only guarantee, in the highly unlikely event that any of these three timber-flexing Monets would ever openly consider it a race, is that it is assuredly a race only Bell can win. Who'd have thunk that? After all, while Gower and Vaughan exuded cast-iron certainty in their talent, here, it had so long felt, was the ungrowliest, most self-effacing of Warwickshire bears.

Let's crunch a bit harder. Unless something goes horribly awry, having recently overtaken Denis Compton and Marcus Trescothick to become the 14th Pom to acquire 6000 runs in Tests, Bell is bound for even more rarefied climes: the next lofty round-numbered milestone, 7000, will take him past an illustrious triumvirate, Graham Thorpe, Ken Barrington, Len Hutton - respectively England's pre-eminent run-forger from 1994 to 2004, 1960 to 1968, and 1946 to 1954. To date, Bell has amassed as many centuries in 153 innings as Gower managed in 204, and 340 runs more than Vaughan compiled in his snooker-flavoured 147. He has also reached 50 as often (53 times) as Kevin Pietersen, in 11 fewer innings.

In fact, since Geoff Boycott collected his last Test run in 1982, of the 40 England batsmen who have made upwards of - or retired with - 1000 runs, Bell's average of 45.90 is sturdier than any bar Pietersen, Alastair Cook, and Jonathan Trott. Granted, all four have consistently figured in the same XI, which tends to confirm the prevailing view about the inverse relationship between the standard of pitches and bowlers, but using more favourable conditions as a stick to beat contemporary practitioners is as pointless as it is heartless. Besides, while Tests may fly thicker and faster now, there remains one stat that brooks no argument: sometime next year, Bell should receive cricket's distinguished service medal: his 100th cap.

The most heartening element of that decisive artisan's 109 at Trent Bridge was an interview with Sky's Ian Ward at the end of day three of that nerve-plucking, tension-dripping epic. At first nothing much appeared to have changed in the ten summers since his debut. Eye contact with Ward was minimal, spasmodic, hesitant. The almost-centurion still looked every bit as sweet and unworldly and in need of a cuddle.

However understated, the self-assertiveness was apparent when Ward asked whether it had been his best knock. Drained after his day's doggedly stellar work, he still had no intention of allowing past triumphs to be demeaned or diminished. It was his best in Ashes Tests, he corrected with characteristic gentility and politeness but ever so slightly grudgingly, as if he felt it was time he stopped being sweet little Belly and bloody well stuck up for himself. I found myself recalling the scene in Almost Famous when William, the teenage wannabe music writer, lets rip at the wannabe rockers he is supposed to be writing about but to whom he is growing far too close for disinterested journalistic comfort:

Where do you get off... where do you get "sweet"? I'm not sweet. I'm dark and mysterious and pissed-off and I could be very dangerous to all of you... I'm not sweet, and you should know that about me! I am The Enemy.


The elegance was still present and correct at Trent Bridge; every late dab to those untenanted acres at third-man - an uplifting stroke of painterly deftness and colour - offered tranquil relief from the prevailing grind and slog

Up to last week, the expression casus belli, justification for an act of war, was the last slice of Latin one could feasibly apply to Bell. Aggression is assuredly not his middle name; actually, it's the refreshingly unassuming and old-fashioned Ronald, whose popularity ran out once that American clown began flogging burgers. At Nottingham, though, it was possible to see those boyish blue eyes glint with the thrill of a more demanding, bloodier battle, a battle with himself as much as with the baggy green 'uns, a battle conducted with weapons he had only recently begun to wield with any regularity.

The elegance was still present and correct; every late dab to those untenanted acres at third-man - an uplifting stroke of painterly deftness and colour - offered tranquil relief from the prevailing grind and slog. But now he was bringing cussedness and infinite patience to bear, not to mention sheer bloody-mindedness. No shots in the V. Don't try to win the mind game by showing the bowlers how easy you're finding it, even if you aren't. Be content with substance. Find that inner Boycott.

To a degree, we can attribute this reinvention to his rebirth in ODIs, as an opener. Up to the Rose Bowl encounter with West Indies in June last year there had been one century in 104 knocks; that day he eased unhurriedly to 126 off 117 balls, a measured and often joyous overture to a 23-match sequence (up to that match-winning 91 against Australia at Edgbaston in June) that would see him receive consecutive Man-of-the-Series awards and four Man-of-the-Match cheques while compiling 1131 runs at a smidge over 49.

Perhaps that freedom of expression, wedded to a growing sense that his team-mates were depending on him rather than Pietersen - six of his eight scores of 50-plus since June 2012 have been achieved when KP has been missing, and he's comfortably outscored him when he hasn't - has allowed him to adapt more readily when the crease needs to be occupied rather than explored.

Pinned down by All Out Cricket magazine late last year, he was asked what advice he would offer his younger self. "Not taking the low things too seriously," came the considered reply. "I was very much a character… when you come in as a young player you're trying to impress everyone. You see that [international cricket is] completely different to county cricket where there's not as much attention, you want everyone to like you."

One suspects that, among the obstacles he has had to overcome on that bumpy highway to self-assertiveness, one of the thorniest has been the realisation that there are sound reasons why being a world-beating competitive artist and being nice are so often mutually exclusive; that you can't please even some of the people more than a fraction of the time.

As dreadful a cliché as it has become, learning how to "bat ugly" has been the making of the artist Shane Warne once crassly dubbed the "Shermanator" after a particularly geeky redhead in American Pie, an equally crass teen movie of the onanistic variety. That said, it might be more accurate to propose that he allowed himself to learn. His ego is chunkier than it seems. Why else would he be dissatisfied at No. 5?

He didn't mention it to Ward, but one can imagine him feeling most pleased-as-punch about that sublime 140 in Durban in December 2009, underpinning as it did arguably England's finest Test victory in foreign climes since that Ashes-retrieving win in Sydney 42 winters ago. The grounds for satisfaction, nonetheless, were far from exclusively selfless. It is not often, after all, that Dale Steyn toils more than 33 overs for his first strike of an innings.

All the same, when push came to shove, Bell says he derived even profounder satisfaction from his second dig in the next Test at Newlands, where, after the fifth wicket had fallen on the final morning, a line-leading 78 plotted an improbable draw secured by Graham Onions' stirring re-enactment of Jeff Jones' last-over stoicism in Georgetown in 1968. "It was the first time in an England shirt I'd got ugly runs," he has reflected, "played a situation under pressure when the team needed it most." And yes, it was "a turning point", even if the fruits have taken time to fully materialise.

There was an incalculable difference between the batsman who holed out to mid-off first ball in Ahmedabad last November (the nerves of the anxious father-to-be?) and the one who dragged England to victory in Kolkata three weeks later, let alone the one who conserved a historic series victory with an almost nauseatingly stolid, near-seven-hour unbeaten century in Nagpur. Becoming a parent between the first and third Tests may have been a factor (even if he did miss the actual birth, how could it not?), but there was something else.

"I'm obviously very pleased that I can make things look nice," he had told All Out Cricket a few weeks earlier. "I hope that the day I retire that that's something that will be alongside my name, that 'he was a great player to watch'. That's something I'd love to have." It is as if he finally felt able to give his inner and outer artist permission to be satisfied with less when the situation dictated.

The lone flaw in Robert Weide's otherwise superlative 2011 documentary about Woody Allen is the title: opting for the drier-than-a-year-old bone Woody Allen: A Documentary was infinitely less apt than celebrating one of the Woodster's darker sorties - Deconstructing Woody. The best sequence finds friends, colleagues and family queuing up in a series of rapid jump cuts to cite his foremost asset: the capacity to compartmentalise.

This is generally something that comes with maturity, but professional sportsfolk, with their incessant exposure to the vagaries of chance, are obliged to master this priceless mental skill much earlier than the rest of us.

If the line between search and acquisition is thicker than blood, all the signs are that Ian Ronald Bell, father, colleague, reluctant superstar, batsman for the gods, has crossed it. A spot of lordliness at Lord's still wouldn't go amiss.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton