June 20, 2014

England's reticent champion

To be playing a 100th Test at the age of 32 is a walloping achievement. Better still, the very best of "Belly" may be yet to come

Ian Bell: no effort, only grace © Getty Images

Of the 12 cricketers to have played 100 Tests for England, Ian Bell is the least imposing. Think of the two who have preceded him for example, Kevin Pietersen and Alastair Cook. Both have a presence: one brazen, one modest but you know when each is in the room. Bell could pass you by and he would be all the happier for it.

The list of 12 creates worthwhile contrasts and illustrates the range of characters who play the game and the breadth of the land from which they come. There is David Gower's artist to Graham Gooch's artisan; Michael Atherton's Cambridge intellect to Ian Botham's marauding soul; Andrew Strauss' Commanding Officer to Alec Stewart's Regimental Sergeant Major. All of which is summed by Colin Cowdrey's place in the Garden of England and Geoffrey Boycott's home in the mining communities of Yorkshire. The only one anywhere near Bell's reservation is Graham Thorpe but Thorpe had an edge that brought the best from his ability. Bell uses cruise control as an alibi. At his best he has an enviable tempo, both in the construction of an innings and the execution of his strokes.

I vividly remember first seeing him bat, 12 years ago this weekend, in the last Benson & Hedges Cup final. Warwickshire knocked over Essex cheaply and promptly lost Michael Powell and Nick Knight with just 21 on the board. The lad at No. 3 missed not one beat. His match-winning innings was a thing of minimalist beauty that contained 65 unbeaten runs, with seven lovely boundaries, in a tad over two hours. The overall impression was of enviable calm and ambition. We had, you could safely assume, just seen the next outstanding English batsman.

And, in a way, that prophecy has been fulfilled. This 100-Test thing is a walloping achievement, especially at the age of 32 and with the suggestion that the very best of "Belly" (I know, isn't it sweet) is yet to come. He looks about 17 and plays anywhere between that sort of age and complete maturity. At times his concentration is so poor you want to kick his backside. At other times, he is so "on it" you cannot get the words of admiration out fast enough. The annus mirabilis was last year, at home against Australia. The annus horibilis was 2009 when, dropped from the side, he watched on the telly as Strauss led them out at Lord's. If a sportsman wants to feel pain, he has only to look at the peers who steal his thunder.

On the concentration front, compare and contrast Trent Bridge against India, when he thought it was tea time and wandered off all dozy - only to be run out but then reinstated by the generously spirited MS Dhoni - with Adelaide last December, when he was so involved that he barely played a false shot against the blood-thirstiest Australians. Mitchell Johnson had sent Jonathan Trott home a week earlier but Bell played him with a stick of rhubarb.

While Tendulkar mainly punched, Bell tends to caress, but the symmetries and similarities are there in body size and shape, economy of movement, sharp reactions and responses that include an almost mesmeric touch

Back at Trent Bridge, Bell assumed his square cut had gone for four and so he left his crease for a cuppa. Assumed! Belly can tell you all about assumption's place as the mother of all cock-ups. Sometimes Geoffrey Boycott, a massive Bell fan incidentally, announces that "there are more brains in a chocolate mousse than in that kid out there batting".

What Boycott loves, and the rest of us too, is the technique. It is no great surprise that Dayle Hadlee (Sir Richard's brother and a Test cricketer himself) nominated Bell the best 16-year-old he had ever seen when he made consecutive hundreds for England Under-19 in New Zealand. Even then, there was a touch of Sachin Tendulkar in the set-up and the straight lines that made playing the ball appear so easy. As the bowler approaches, he keeps his head dead still, his body side on and his feet ready to trigger a perfectly positioned response. Invariably, full balls are hit back from whence they came and short balls are cut and pulled, all with delicious timing. There seems no effort, only grace.

While Tendulkar mainly punched, Bell tends to caress, but the symmetries and similarities are there in body size and shape, economy of movement, sharp reactions and responses that include an almost mesmeric touch, and a splendid overriding sense that David is slaying Goliath. If Bell could unlock Tendulkar's mind, if he can find a way to see expectation as a friend and to tackle the endless challenges of international cricket with an acute mind and evergreen enthusiasm, goodness knows what he might achieve. The canvas is ready for his brilliance.

One suspects he likes a force for good by his side and that the removal from England office of Graham Gooch is a shame for him. From the earliest days he leant upon Neal Abberley, the former Warwickshire batsman and coach, to whom he was devoted. Make more hundreds, Abberley used to say, they are your currency.

Certainly Strauss and Andy Flower made the right move in 2009 when they left him out of the side. Bell's answer, famously, was to toughen up - both in body and mind - and play more innings that directly effected the outcome of the match. This proved the strength of his character at a time when it would have been easy to slide into self-pity. Suddenly, playing for England was a thing of need not want.

By nature he has been a reticent person, happier behind the camera than in front of it. The oft-unshaven face reflects the desire to become a warrior, to set himself before the world as man not boy. These days his body language - a barometer the players look to - is less submissive than when Shane Warne took the mickey and the 2005 Australians scared the life out of him. That experience, and these others along the way, have taught him that you have to do it all for yourself. You have to look the game in the eye, and while doing so, confront both the opponent and your own inner being. Once you have worked it out, and are secure in the knowledge that you are blessed with exceptional ability, you can play 100 Test matches for England.

Now is your time, Belly. The new era is upon us and you must be its talisman. You can guide the young and enhance the old. Given good health, 50 more Test matches are in your gift, as is a career average of 50 to go with them. By then you may have carried England back to the top of the charts. At the moment you have an ecstatic house on your side. Make sure that when you finish, that house gives you a standing ovation.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK