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Feature

Ian Bell: 'When I look in the mirror, I know I tried everything I had'

Retired batter opens up on his decision to call time and the "mental burnout" he suffered after 2013

George Dobell
George Dobell
26-May-2021
There's just a moment, when you see Ian Bell with a bat in his hand, when you wonder if he might have retired too soon.
It's true the bowling (supplied by the golfer, Andrew "Beef" Johnston) is not the most threatening you've ever seen. And it's true there isn't much match intensity, either. This is a video shoot for Bet365. Bell is relaxed and having fun.
But he looks so good. So damn good. He's slim, he's fit, he still loves the game. Put simply, he looks full of runs. And it's not as if England have adequately replaced him. James Anderson is less than a year younger. Darren Stevens is six years older.
Bell, it could be forgotten, was actually contracted to Warwickshire for the 2021 season. He could easily have accepted a salary commensurate with his position as the club's greatest homegrown player and fulfilled the role of senior pro. Yes, injuries had hampered him, and yes, the torrent of runs had dwindled a little. But he made 140 runs (split across innings of 50 and 90) in his final first-class match. There was nobody pushing him into retirement.
But he knew. He knew his body could no longer accede to the commands his eyes gave it. Or not as quickly as it once did, anyway. And, having excelled for so long, he wasn't content to be "okay", as he puts it. He might, he says, pull on the whites once more when his son reaches club third XI standard - just so they can play a game together - but, in essence, he is fulfilled.
"It didn't feel like a hard decision to retire," he says. "I didn't really feel sad. There's definitely things I miss. I miss that feeling of winning. I miss the hard work that goes into helping Warwickshire win a Championship game. And I've loved having a bat today. But I don't miss the fielding and the soreness in the morning, especially as you get older.
"I feel like I gave everything I had. As a kid, my dream was to play 100 Test matches and I achieved that. I had 22 years as a professional cricketer. When I look in the mirror, I know I tried everything I had.
"I know I was blessed with some talent. But there's stuff that people don't see behind the scenes. I gave it everything I had in training. No stone was left unturned in terms of my preparation and trying to be as good as I could be. Some days it turned out well; some days it didn't. That's sport. That's life. I feel very satisfied with the efforts that I made to be as good as I could be.
"I was very lucky Warwickshire offered me a contract to play this year. I signed it. But I'd been out the whole year [2019] injured and, until you're in the middle, or you're fielding or running between the wickets, you're not sure. I just didn't feel I was moving how I wanted to. And that was restricting me a little bit from getting the best of myself. I didn't want to just sit on a contract. I didn't just want to be okay.
"And we [Warwickshire] have some good young players coming through. There's Dan Mousley, Rob Yate and Jacob Bethell. I didn't want to just take up a spot and block some young, homegrown players from coming through. That would have hurt me more.
"So, it felt like the right decision if I'm honest. I've enjoyed the media and events work I've done and I'm trying to go down the coaching route. I'm very comfortable with I'm doing now."
He accepts, however, that burnout played its part in the ending of his international career. For though there were more obvious casualties of the schedule in 2013 and 2014 - Jonathan Trott, notably - in their own ways, Andy Flower, Kevin Pietersen, Alastair Cook and Graeme Swann were all broken, too. Those who decry England's recent rest-and-rotation policy, would probably do well to reflect how things might look if such a policy was not in place.
"The mental side of the game for me got to a point where I probably needed to take a backward step, take some time off, re-energise and go again"
Bell on suffering from burnout
The decline in Bell was less obvious. Indeed, by the end of the 2013 Ashes - in which he scored three centuries and was named Player of the Series; his proudest achievement he says now - it seemed his game had risen to a new level. He had the confidence and experience to add to his obvious class. From Christmas 2009 until August 2013, he averaged 57.51 in Test cricket with 12 centuries in 43 matches. England went to No. 1 in the Test rankings and he went to No. 3 in the ICC's batting rankings.
In retrospect, though, the summer of 2013 was the beginning of the end. In his final 25 Tests, a period which coincided with two more Ashes series (one of them a whitewash), a disappointing World Cup campaign (Bell was actually England's highest run-scorer in 2015, but we're in "tallest dwarf" territory here) and a World T20 campaign in which he was a non-playing squad member, he scored two more centuries and averaged 29.52. And there's nothing more ageing than the cocktail of weariness and disappointment.
Reflecting on this period now, Bell accepts he should have taken Andrew Strauss, the managing director of England men's cricket at the time, up on his offer of a few months' sabbatical.
"That wasn't physical," Bell says. "That was more mental burnout. At the time, I was one of those guys who thought I should keep ploughing on. Andrew Strauss, to his credit, offered me the winter off.
"But I'd just accepted a central contract. So I didn't feel taking winter off was the right option. When I look back, probably that was the wrong decision. It probably would have been a good option.
"Whether it would have changed things and I'd have gone back in and had another two or three years with England, I don't know. But the mental side of the game for me got to a point where I probably needed to take a backward step, take some time off, re-energise and go again."
There are no serious regrets, though. Marriage and fatherhood suit him nicely. While he remains modest, he has the good-natured honesty to admit, while filming a feature for ESPNcricinfo about the perfect 360-degree batter, that he wouldn't swap his cover drive with anybody. And really, why would he?
He's not finished with cricket, though. He hopes to move into coaching and has particular interest in the fortunes of his old team-mates, Joe Root - "the best player of spin England have ever had" - and Dom Sibley, who "at his best, he is just what England need," Bell says. "There are lots of different ways to be successful."
And then there's Ollie Pope. The similarities between Bell and Pope are lost on nobody and Bell admits there are moments he double-takes and wonders whether his TV is showing live coverage or highlights of the old days. Perhaps partly as a result, there is an almost paternal attitude to analysis of a 23-year-old who is currently coming to terms with the burden of high expectations.
"I had that from 16 myself in terms of some quite big statements," Bell says, referring perhaps to that Dayle Hadlee line about him being the best 16-year-old he had ever seen. "But I think that comes with playing for England.
"It always makes me laugh when people say that certain innings weren't under pressure. You're always under pressure when you play for England. You have to be able to deal with expectation. But there's no doubt [Pope] has the ability. And he has the people around him too. I used to tap into Alec Stewart, his coach at Surrey, a lot about batting.
"But my advice to him - to any, player, really - would be staying in the moment. And that's really hard to do. A lot of the time, as a batsman in particular, you're chasing outcomes. You want to get a hundred, for example. So you're desperate to get those big scores and sometimes you put a little bit too much pressure on yourself.
"When I look back in the partnerships I enjoyed with Trotty, or Cooky, or KP or Matt Prior, we just broke things down into small, achievable targets. I used to try and get to five. And then 10. And then 15. So, I'd say don't look too far ahead.
"But don't worry about him. He scores big runs whenever he goes back to Surrey. He learns fast. He's going to be a fine, fine player. I love watching him."
So, no need for a Bell comeback then? "No chance," he says with a smile. "I played for more than 20 years. I played around the world and enjoyed some success with some really good teams. I did my bit."

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo