Ian Bell’s wonder years

December 18, 2021

Had Mark Waugh beheaded an alien invader with a spork while bombs fell around him, he would have done it gracefully. That was just how he was.

It also meant that had Mark Waugh failed to tame a wayward schnauzer that was running around his bathroom, he would have been called soft. That was just how it works.

Ian Bell is not as effortlessly graceful as Waugh or Gower. And unlike Gower and Waugh he doesn’t seem to enjoy it as much. But in modern cricket, there are few who can make every ball seem like it’s been bowled in slow motion like Bell. Technically, he is a textbook. A pretty illustrated textbook. If you are a batting purist, watching him reach forward and defend a ball is on its own: a moment of beauty and perfection.

And if you like that, you’ll need a cold shower and a lie down after he plays a cover drive.

For the longest time that was all you got, aesthetic perfection, as if all his innings were like a shuttlecock falling serenely to ground, before a racquet comes in and smashes the hell out of it.

You’ll no doubt have your favourite Ian Bell “I can’t believe he got out” moment. It might be a collection of horror drives to short cover. Maybe it was a breezy chip on the legside. Or anytime he’s got confused playing spin in the sub-continent. For me, and I doubt I’m alone, it is the Paul Harris wicket.

Aesthetically they are worlds apart. Ian Bell is stylish and correct. Paul Harris is technically horrible and about as aesthetically unpleasing as any spinner ever. On pure cricket talent, Ian Bell has paddling pools of it, Paul Harris has a thimble’s worth. But when Paul Harris came around the wicket, bowled from wide on the crease, and put even less spin on the ball than usual, Ian Bell just left it. He left it gracefully, technically correct and confidently watched it all closely.

He watched the bell so closely, he saw it not just clip the outside of off stump; he saw it hit the inside of off and a bit of middle.

If that one dismissal wasn’t a lesson to Ian Bell then he just wasn’t taking cricket seriously enough.

Of course, since then, Ian Bell has had more coming of age moments than Kevin Arnold had in The Wonder Years. The English cricket writers have narrated every single lesson that he has learnt, and Ian Bell has aged just as slowly as Kevin did.

Coming into the Ashes he was in a form slide. India was unkind to him. The Kiwis were not that fruitful. He could have been under pressure to maintain his spot had his Ashes mirrored his recent form. No one talked Bell up before this series. He was just the third or fourth name you mentioned when talking about the ‘batting unit’.

According to him, he is now better at grinding out innings than ever before. But he’s not suddenly turned into Paul Collingwood; he’s just using his normal skills and technique to essentially keep England in this series.

Today’s innings was magnificent. It was heroic. It was Ian Bell at his best. Chanceless. Pretty. And without any fuss or smiles.

Bell doesn’t get involved in sledging. His sex life doesn’t make the papers. He’s not in court on charges ever. He does not abuse his teammates. He seems unlikely to make himself into a Reality TV regular. He’s not got a drug addiction. He’s never claimed to suffer from depression. He just bats. And bats well.

Alastair Cook is posh and doesn’t sweat. KP is ego and genius. Graeme Swann is a failed rockstar and a confident spinner.

Ian Bell has played more Ashes Tests than all of them. And yet, all that comes to mind about him is that he bats pretty and he sometimes goes out softly. A PR firm would have a tough job selling him on anything else.

While they were making bronze statues of Jimmy Anderson outside Trent Bridge, there was little reference to the short ginger batsman who is apparently too soft to score runs when they matter but who gave Jimmy the lead he needed to get England over the line. England would not be 1-0 without Ian Bell. They would not be 289 for 7 today if not for Ian Bell.

This series Jonathan Trott has been careless. Alastair Cook has looked distracted. And KP has yet to find full form. England needed someone to step up.

For the second straight innings, it was Ian Bell. He did it in the exact same way he left that ball that bowled him by Paul Harris, with grace, confidence and technically perfect.

It’s just that now there is something behind the façade where Ian Bell has improved. It’s the grinding we don’t notice in between the pretty drives. Something has changed in him. He’s got it.

Even when he was out of form, against New Zealand, he still fought to save a Test. Sure, he’ll continue to go out in ways that we see as lazy, silly or cheap, because when he is in form like this, it’s impossible to understand how he could ever be dismissed.

If you’ve ever seen an Ian Bell hundred in person, you’re a lucky human being.

If you’re England in this Ashes, you’re a lucky team.