September 3, 2015

Who's sad to see Bell go?

England cricket's disregard for his ODI retirement says much about the country's attitude towards the format

England will remember the strokeplay - if not the fact that it came in coloured clothing © Getty Images

A few days after the end of the Ashes Ian Bell confirmed he wanted to extend his Test career. Nestled among his words, almost an afterthought both to Bell and those who reported it, was news of his retirement from one-day internationals.

The announcement that England's highest ever ODI run scorer would never play again dropped with barely a murmur: a window into England's historic disregard for the format and, perhaps, the sense of benign indifference many feel towards Bell.

England had already moved on, their embrace of modern ODI cricket, simultaneously decisive and long overdue, arriving when they topped 400 against New Zealand in June. Only three months before then, Bell played his last ODI, marking an easily forgotten World Cup dead rubber with an even more easily forgotten unbeaten half-century on a damp Sydney day that was emblematic of a tournament that had left England behind. Somehow it all felt rather apt.

So there will be no laments for the passing of Bell's one-day career. "It is a little bit harsh on him but he's got a lot to be proud of," says the England selector Angus Fraser.

Indeed Bell does. His career was among the most distinguished any English batsman has enjoyed in limited-overs cricket. Bell ended up with 5416 runs at 37.87 apiece, with a strike rate of 77.16, from his 161 ODIs: a better average and higher strike rate than Paul Collingwood, Graham Gooch, Graeme Hick, Alec Stewart and Graham Thorpe.

As a one-day player Bell was easy to caricature as a victim of the move from one age of ODI cricket to another. Yet he was not incapable of adapting

Bell's achievements are more significant for the unthinking way in which he was moved around the order: he batted everywhere apart from Nos. 8 and 10, even if No. 11 was when he was injured and came out to try and help England over the line with a broken foot against Bangladesh in Bristol. Bell's lack of a settled position was "synonymous of a team trying to find the right formula," Fraser admits.

His Warwickshire coach, Dougie Brown, said: "He was a victim of his own success - he is such a flexible, talented player that he can change his role. It may have been more suitable to him just to hold down one role, but he's a real team man and he'll just do the job that's been asked of him. Maybe that's been to his long-term detriment."

England envisaged Bell as an opener in the model of Mark Waugh, piercing the infield with timing and finesse. Entrusting Bell to open would surely have been the most productive use of his talents. His record at the top of the order - an average of 42.49 from 76 innings and a strike rate of 79.50 - is testament to as much. Yet since striking 77 from 90 balls opening in a World Cup match against Australia in 2007, Bell opened in just 68 of England's 181 ODIs until the end of the 2015 World Cup.

The appointment of Alastair Cook as ODI captain in 2011, a position for which Bell unsuccessfully applied, was particularly unfortunate. Cook's adhesiveness seemed to demand being accompanied by a hefty top order player, and so rendered Bell's undemonstrative approach less attractive.

Bell chips over the infield on his way to his top score of 141. It was a shot he added to his armoury in the latter stages of his career © Getty Images

"The feeling is that white-ball cricket has moved forward and you are looking for a more destructive batsman at the top of the order. With Alastair being in the side too, it's been difficult to fit three people into two positions," Fraser explains.

As a one-day player Bell was easy to caricature as a victim of the move from one age of ODI cricket to another. Yet he was not incapable of adapting. After Kevin Pietersen's first ODI retirement in June 2012, Bell was recalled in his stead as opener. "He had adjusted his game slightly," Fraser says.

Indeed he had: Bell became increasingly adept at lifting the ball over the infield. His second coming as an ODI cricketer - 2182 runs at 45.45 with a strike rate of 83.66, with 17 sixes in 53 innings (after 15 in his previous 104) - revealed a player trying, with considerably more success than he was given credit for, to adjust to the modern incarnation of ODI cricket.

These are impressive numbers. Often they contributed to England victories, too: his sparkling 126 on his ODI recall in 2012; 91 to set up England's victory against Australia in the 2013 Champions Trophy; innings of 85 and an unbeaten 113 underpinned two ODI victories in India in January 2013. None of these, though, quite amounted to a defining ODI innings. It seemed oddly fitting that his top score, a high-class 141 against Australia in the CB Series this January, came in defeat.

Instead a more fitting embodiment of Bell in ODI cricket came in the World Cup this year. Ostensibly Bell enjoyed a fine tournament - 262 runs at 52.40 apiece. But two innings in England's crunch matches against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh told a story. Twice Bell began fluently during the Powerplay, became increasingly becalmed afterwards, and then fell lamely, playing on to a half-volley against Sri Lanka and then flashing behind against Bangladesh.

In his own way Bell became a fine barometer of England in ODI cricket: quietly formidable in England, he was too often too lightweight abroad

Innings of 49 and 62 certainly did not make him the culprit for these defeats, but twice he was primed to help England avert ignominy and squandered his starts. These were no anomalies, either: four centuries in 127 ODI innings in the top three was a paltry return.

In his own way Bell became a fine barometer of England in ODI cricket. Quietly formidable in England, where his ODI average of 42.46 was outstanding, he was too often too lightweight abroad. However much his game was repackaged - Bell added paddle sweeps, powerful hitting down the ground and an impish upper cut to make his game more ODI-friendly - the pieces always added up to something curiously underwhelming.

This is one explanation for why news of his ODI retirement has not registered in the consciousness of English cricket. It is a reflection, too, of ODI cricket itself - how transient it feels and how devoid of context it seems. More fundamentally it is a reflection of how the English have felt about ODI cricket. Bell played in three World Cups and two Champions Trophies. English cricket should feel something - frustration, gratitude, or even a sense of good riddance - at his ODI departure. Anything, in fact, except the cold apathy that marked his departure.

Doubtless Bell will not mind. His low-key ODI retirement was in keeping with the tone of a man who eschews the limelight, in itself a factor in the way English cricket collectively disregarded the news.

To most English cricket fans it's not really a goodbye from Bell at all. Outside his home ground at Edgbaston, there is a huge picture of Bell, in pristine white, his arms aloft and face beaming, celebrating a moment of Test Match triumph. It is the image of Bell that England have always cultivated. And it goes a long way to explaining England's dire performances in ODI cricket since 1992.

Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts

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