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Bell still focused on unfinished business

The first time Ian Bell played in a Lord's final he had his whole career in front of him. He was only 20 but he had long been tipped for greatness. And, as he caressed an unbeaten 65 - the only half-century of a match in which the players still wore whites - to win Warwickshire the 2002 Benson and Hedges Cup, it became clear to a wide audience that he was a special talent.

He had been to the ground before. As an 11-year-old he ran on to the pitch - you could do that in those more innocent days - to celebrate Warwickshire's 1993 NatWest final victory over Sussex. Asif Din's game. It was, Bell says now, "the day I knew I wanted to play cricket. Not for England; for Warwickshire."

He has been back to the ground many times. He is on the honours board four times (for Test centuries in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2013) and led Warwickshire to another trophy - both as captain and centurion - when he made 107 as his team defeated Somerset in the 2010 Clydesdale Bank 40. Nobody else in the side passed 30.

We'll leave it for another time to discuss whether he has achieved everything he promised in those early days. But surely all but the most churlish would agree that, after 118 Tests, 22 Test centuries, the Man of the Series award in the 2013 Ashes (as well as playing in four other winning Ashes teams) and 161 ODIs he can look back with pride on an excellent career. And, leaving the stats aside, how many England right-handers have timed the ball as sweetly? Bell has, at times, made batting look beautiful.

But while much has changed - "Do you remember when he had ginger hair?" one of his team-mates jokes - his passion for representing Warwickshire has not. Other players might have fallen out of love with the county that gave them their first opportunity, but not Bell. He might well be the best cricketer this club has produced - he is almost certainly its most successful - but he admits he will take a moment on Saturday to look towards the grandstand where he sat with his family and remember how far he has come. It will not be an insignificant moment for him.

He feels he has unfinished business, though. Not only does he hanker after an England recall (he would go to Bangladesh if asked), but he is desperate to revive the fortunes of a Warwickshire team that are, by their standards, enduring a pretty grim season.

A grim season? They're in a Lord's final!

True. But they also failed to make the quarter-finals of the NatWest Blast and find themselves neck deep in the Championship relegation battle. For an experienced, well-resourced squad rated the best the club had ever had at the start of the season by their director of cricket, Dougie Brown, that is a bitter disappointment. Bell makes no attempt to hide it.

"Getting to Lord's is a fantastic achievement," he says. "But we have to take it on its own. It can't take away the need to improve. We can't paper over cracks. We need to talk very honestly. We need to sort a few things out.

"There are things that, without a shadow of a doubt, we have to address. There have been things going on that you can't talk about; things that we're hopefully going to move forward with. Not getting through the group stages in T20 - especially having won five of our first six games; we then won one from six - was disappointing and it is the same in the Championship. At the halfway point, we were in the mix to win it. But we only have ourselves to blame for being in a relegation scrap now."

Such disappointments will bring a review at the end of the season. The mumbles around Edgbaston somewhat harshly blame Brown - it is incredible how a spell as coach can ruin the reputation of a man viewed as a club legend a couple of years ago and it does appear his relationship with some senior players has soured - but Bell is having none of it.

"The players are the ones responsible," he says. "We're a brilliant side on paper. I haven't played in a Championship side this year when I would look at the opposition team and think 'we're not a better team than them', but the problem is, you don't play on paper. We've as good, if not a better, batting line-up than anyone in the country. But it's not quite worked. And I count myself in that.

"You cross the line and you have to front up. The one thing we haven't done this year is win key passages of play. I could make excuses about the weather: I could say we were four times in positions to win and the weather stopped us but I think that would be a cop-out. We haven't been good enough.

"Are we doing the right things? Are we playing the right brand of cricket in four-day cricket? Are we talking the right language? Are we training hard enough and trying to get better? Those are the questions we have to ask ourselves and we have to do it straight away at the end of the season."

"At the halfway point in the Championship, we were in the mix to win it. But we only have ourselves to blame for being in a relegation scrap now"

Perhaps the biggest disappointment has been Bell's own form. While he started the season with an innings of 174 at Hampshire, no further centuries followed. For one so gifted, his Championship average of 33.88 with only four scores over 50 is modest.

There are some mitigating factors. Warwickshire have played on some pretty tricky batting surfaces in recent times - "a score of 30 would have been good at times in the match against Yorkshire," Bell says - and there were games, earlier in the season, when rain thwarted them. It also appears that Bell, desperate to revive the fortunes of the team he loves, has been drawn into working on areas of the club - the academy, recruitment, even a membership drive in the early months of the year - that are usually beyond the remit of a captain. He makes no excuses, but you wonder if the demands of leading an increasingly divided dressing room have taken their toll.

He has, he says, held meetings with Andrew Strauss "twice in the last three weeks", as well as James Whitaker and Trevor Bayliss. But he has not scored the runs to persuade England to pick him. He will look out for the squad announcement on Friday more in hope than expectation.

So, has it been frustrating to see his England hopes slip away? "It's more frustrating that we've lost a couple of games that we should have won," he says. "I've tried not to think too much about England. I'm averaging mid-30s. I'm trying bloody hard to average 50. But it's not been the case.

"It's difficult to know why. Out in the middle it feels pretty good. It's been challenging. You've got to look inside yourself.

"My batting actually feels in a pretty good place. But, from an individual point of view - if I'm going to play for England again - we haven't really played on wickets that allow you to go out and get a big hundred."

He has not given up, though. And whatever happens this winter - he is currently scheduled to play for Perth Scorchers in the Big Bash - he is not going to give up.

"It won't dim my desire to play at all," he says. "At our medicals the other day [centrally contracted players - Bell still is one - have medicals, performance reviews and fitness tests each September] I said, if they don't take me this winter, I still want to play for England. Whether that's next summer or the following winter, I will keep going. Unless they tell me the door is closed, I will keep trying to do it for as long as I can. I still want to play.

"But I completely admit that I can't sit here and say I've bashed the door down enough to say 'pick me'. I'd love to have five hundreds and an average of 65 and say pick me, but I can't.

"My desire, my will, my training, everything is all geared up to playing for England. I have been through the highs and lows of wearing that England shirt and I know how hard you have to work. The rewards are massive, but also you have some really tough days.

"They've been very clear that the door is never shut. If it is not to be this winter, I will be working hard to come back again a better player. If I start the season well again next year I hope to give myself a chance. There's an Ashes tour in a year and a half. Experience will be valuable there, and if I am playing as well as I can, hopefully I will be on that trip.

"When I left Sharjah [on England's tour of the UAE], it didn't feel like it would be my last game of cricket. And I didn't want it to be my last. I didn't feel in a particularly good place. I was pretty fatigued. But once I came out of that environment, I still believed I had the hunger to play some more.

"I know not everyone gets the opportunity to go out in the best way. So I am not sat here in dream world, thinking about being paraded around the SCG. I know there are massive challenges ahead. So if they don't take me now I am not going to give up. I will keep trying as hard as I can until I get told: 'We've moved on.'"

Warwickshire approach the game with some tricky selection decisions to make. William Porterfield, an experienced international opening batsman, is available but may miss out as the club maintain the successful partnership between Jonathan Trott (who has made three centuries and a half-century in the competition this season) and Sam Hain (the highest run-scorer in the competition this season).

Equally, while their policy of playing three spinners has served them well on the road to Lord's, they may decide to alter it in mind of the 10.30am start and what appears to be a well-grassed pitch. While the Lord's square looks unusually dry, it seems the MCC plan to use the pitch from the final in next week's Championship match between Middlesex and Yorkshire. Keith Barker, the leading wicket-taker among seamers in Division One, could therefore come into the side in place of Josh Poysden or Ateeq Javid.

Either way, Bell is determined to savour the day. He wants to inspire a new generation of players and supporters as he was once inspired by his Warwickshire heroes. Now aged 34 he knows he might not pass this way again. These moments are precious. And so are talents like Bell's. Catch him while you can.

Ian Bell was speaking at the Coventry branch of Selco Builders Warehouse which hosted a special coaching event with pupils from Little Heath Primary School in Coventry. Selco is a leading builders merchant with 44 branches across the UK and are main shirt sponsors to Warwickshire CCC and Birmingham Bears