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Ian Bell: 'I want to be head coach because I'm ready, not because I'm an ex-player'

The former England batter, now Derbyshire's new batting consultant, on why he chose to coach in Division Two, and why he'd like to work in the subcontinent in the future

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Ian Bell in the nets, day four, Third Test, South Africa v England, St George's Park, Port Elizabeth, South Africa, January 19, 2020

Ian Bell: "I love coaching players, helping them find their way and improve. I don't have to rush into certain jobs for the sake of it but I'll know when the time is right. I'm very ambitious but for now, I want to keep learning"  •  Matthew Lewis/ICC/Getty Images

Ian Bell turned 40 on Monday. Landmark birthdays are confronting, but in this case not only for the person celebrating: is the junior member of England's 2005 Ashes squad really heading towards middle age?
"If I'm old, it makes everyone feel old, doesn't it?" Bell jokes the day before celebrating at home with family and friends. He used the occasion as an excuse to open his player-of-the-series champagne from the 2013 Ashes. "It's all downhill from now, isn't it?" he laughs.
Bell is in the early stages of his new career as a coach and is speaking at the end of his first week as Derbyshire's new batting consultant, a role he will fill for the first two months of the county season before playing in the Road Safety World Series, a tournament in India for retired players. He is to work for four days per week with the county - the first two of each Championship game and the two training days before. We talk on the second morning of their draw against Middlesex at Lord's.
Mickey Arthur, who became Derbyshire's head of cricket over the winter, was in contact with Bell last summer. "I always had him at the back of my mind," Arthur says. "He'd approached me about potentially doing some work last year when we were over here with Sri Lanka and I know he wants to develop himself as a coach.
"It's a match made in heaven. It's superb to have a guy of his ilk in our dressing room. The response from our young batsmen - and our more senior batsmen - has been excellent. He's fitted in really well… he's been fantastic, as I knew he would be."
The move represents a return to the fundamentals of batting for Bell, who spent the majority of his fledgling coaching career in the white-ball game. His CV includes stints with England Under-19s, Hobart Hurricanes, Birmingham Phoenix and Chennai Braves (in the Abu Dhabi T10), all substantially different coaching experiences to that of the early months of the Championship season in the spring.
"T20 cricket isn't going anywhere, is it?" he says. "You want to be at the cutting edge of the way the game is developing… you want to be in there. I played a lot of T20 cricket at the back end of my career, but my foundation was around Test-match cricket and four-day cricket, and having a good technique. I need to make sure that I'm really balanced in my coaching experiences."
When Bell returns to Australia this winter, he hopes to fit in a stint with Tasmania's Sheffield Shield side as well as his BBL commitments with Hobart.
"My theory at the moment is to be stretching myself in different environments with different people, different cultures, and building up that foundation," he adds, "so that when the right role comes up full-time, I can dive into it knowing that I've worked with some great people and have a good contact list of coaches that I can bounce ideas off."
It is to Bell's credit that he starts the season at Derbyshire, rather than his home county, Warwickshire. He aspires to become head coach at Edgbaston in the long term but decided to put himself "outside my comfort zone" at a new club rather than staying with the county he knows so well. "It's important that it's not just a 'job for the boys' type role. I want to earn that right to be head coach [at Warwickshire]. When I go and coach somewhere like that, I want it to be because I'm ready and because I'm known as a good coach, not as an ex-player."
He timed his retirement well, too. Bell had initially been due to play for Warwickshire in 2021 but declined the opportunity to play a final season; instead, his decision to leave the game a year ahead of schedule ensured players like Matthew Lamb, Chris Benjamin and Dan Mousley had opportunities in their middle order. All of those players contributed to the Championship title last summer.
"I've got really big ambitions," Bell says. "But having worked in some of these franchise competitions, I thought, 'Why not go to a county that's in Division Two and have a look?' A lot of people talk about these teams but I thought, 'I'm going to have a look for myself.' It would be easy for me to work at Warwickshire at the top end of it, but why not have a look at the other end? It's important to do a bit of both.
"It's a match made in heaven. It's superb to have a guy of his ilk in our dressing room. The response from our young batsmen - and our more senior batsmen - has been excellent. He's fitted in really well"
Derbyshire head coach Mickey Arthur on Bell
"I'd love to work in international cricket - and that doesn't necessarily mean England. I spoke to Mickey and Farby [Paul Farbrace, Warwickshire's director of cricket] about this and I'd love to work with some of the subcontinent sides. Having worked in the T10 and played a bit of franchise cricket in the PSL, the enthusiasm and the love for the game is so good and the opportunity to go and work in those environments would be massive for me.
"I love coaching players, helping them find their way and improve. There's a lot of talk in English cricket at the moment about coaches maybe being a bit tougher on certain things, but having the trust of a player first is really important. That allows you to have those honest conversations.
"From a county point of view, those six months in the winter are the time to really do your technical work; if you're going to make big changes, that's your time. In the season, it's more about game plans. This week it was: how are we going to go and score runs against Tim Murtagh? Sometimes you assume that everyone will know the right thing to do, and that's a mistake. Some of these lads need a bit of help or a bit of guidance."
Bell is sceptical about off-stump guards, the latest trend in the county games for batters trying to avoid edging wobble-seam balls in the channel behind.
"We have to be open that there isn't one way. It's not about me telling people to bat like me, or to bat in a certain way; you have to work with the strength of the player. If you bat on off stump, you have to know where it is and think, 'Anything outside my eyeline, I leave.' That's an individual trying to find the right solution for themselves, but I always get a little bit concerned.
"For me, the problem with that comes when you're playing world-class bowlers who are then smart enough to adapt, so you move across and they move across as well and you end up playing at balls you don't need to. The problem with that is, you leave yourself vulnerable: if you miss a straight ball, you're out. The other thing is that from a scoring point of view, if you get too far across, you're missing out on cut balls. You're missing out on scoring options because you're getting too close to the ball. Especially on bouncy pitches, if you're defending at fourth stump rather than leaving, you're asking for a bit of trouble."
But if he disagrees with some players' methods, he is heartened by the attitude and standard he has seen at the start of the season. "There's a lot of talk about county cricket - you hear a lot of guys that I played with talk about it - and it's generally at the end of an Ashes campaign where we get absolutely smashed. For the first few months after that, it's very emotional, it's very raw, and it needs to settle a little bit.
"What I've witnessed in the last few days is young players working extremely hard on their game trying to find their way, working extremely hard and trying to do the right things. That's what I've seen on both teams. For me, it's about getting in and getting a little bit dirty with county cricket; getting stuck in, trying to help.
"And those young players learn from good senior players. I remember batting with Dan Mousley in my last game. Farby was adamant that he would learn way, way more, batting with me for two hours in the middle than spending hours in the nets with any coach. That's what you need in county cricket.
"Having [Suranga] Lakmal with Derby at the moment with a young guy like [Sam] Conners - how good is that? I remember Broady [Stuart] Broad saying it about Ottis Gibson when he was at Leicestershire making his way. Everyone to a man came off at lunch yesterday and said, 'Lakmal let Conners choose which end to bowl from.' They're the senior players you want. They're the players that are helping young players become better."
Derbyshire have another of those in their ranks in Shan Masood, the Pakistan opener who has signed for the full season. He made twin fifties on his debut at Lord's last week, and has already enjoyed having Bell on the club's staff.
"He was one of the top batsmen in international cricket - and one of the most aesthetically pleasing batsmen to watch," Masood said. "I had a hit with him in Derby the day before we travelled, and he gave me some good insights. It's always good when a coach tells you a few new things, and I think I applied a few of them here."
"I love coaching players, helping them find their way and improve," Bell adds. "I'm not shy of doing the work. I don't have to rush into certain jobs for the sake of it but I'll know when the time is right. I'm very ambitious but for now, I want to keep learning."

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98