x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Finally, Bell chimes in for England

Since his return to the Test side, the batsman has combined maturity with talent to become a complete cricketer.

Ian Bell, the England middle-order batsman, left, scored a fine century against Sri Lanka yesterday.
Ian Bell, the England middle-order batsman, left, scored a fine century against Sri Lanka yesterday.

Graeme Swann, facetious and irreverent to a fault, made a rather blunt assessment of England's top order batsmen last week.

"I'm not a great watcher, but when those three [Alastair Cook, Andrew Strauss and Jonathan Trott] are batting, I struggle to keep my eyes open," he said in his usual flippant way. "I adore the fact they love batting, but I would happily pay to watch an Ian Bell, or Matt Prior.

"I always watch KP [Kevin Pietersen] as well, but Cook, Strauss and Trott, if there is an uglier top three in the world I don't know of it."

Strauss, with his recent run-scoring drought, has probably kept Swann from dozing off, but Cook and Trott have given him enough time for a siesta. Yesterday evening, though, he must have felt a bit like an insomniac.

With Bell at the crease, there is no chance that Swann would have even considered a nap. One of England's most talented batsmen, Bell is their classiest when on song and he hit the high notes at the Rose Bowl yesterday in cruising to his 14th century in Test cricket.

It was his fifth century since the start of 2010, a period during which he has scored more than 1,232 runs in 14 Tests at an average of 88. He has also scored seven half-centuries in the 19 innings during this period and has just two single-figure scores.

Given these numbers, Bell finally seems to be fulfilling the potential Dayle Hadlee, the then New Zealand academy director, saw in the England Under 19 tourist in 1999.

"He's the best 16 year old I've ever seen," said Hadlee after Bell hit a century and a 90 in the three-match series. It was a heavy tag to live with and Bell has often admitted to it in the past.

"To become a Test player isn't just about ability," he said last year, ahead of the Ashes. "There are all sorts of physical and mental aspects and they are the two areas I have improved on."

"When I look back to 2005, I was nowhere near ready for Test cricket," he said at another time. "The likes of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne were all over me at times.

"I was probably playing those guys rather than the ball. Maybe I wasn't ready for Test cricket."

The England selectors, however, were convinced he was ready after just 13 first-class games when they drafted him into the squad for the New Zealand tour of 2001/02. His Test debut did not come until three years later, against the West Indies at home in 2004.

Bell started with a 70 and in his third Test, he became the first England batsman in 70 years to score 100 runs before lunch. Then came the Ashes of 2005 and Bell scored two half-centuries against Australia. He got four more of those against England's traditional rivals in 2006, but faced criticism for not being able to convert his 50s into centuries.

"He has six Test hundreds and 17 Test fifties," Andy Flower, England's team director, said in 2008. "That conversion rate isn't good enough. If he wants to be one of the best in the world, if he wants England to be one of the best in the world, then he's got to be tougher on himself and demand better results."

Eight of those 17 half-centuries were scores of 70 or plus and Nasser Hussain, the former England captain, said at the time: "He plays like Ian Bell until he gets to 50 and then he starts trying to play like Kevin Pietersen or Ricky Ponting.

The tempo of his innings is always going in one direction. He should bat the same way between 50 and 100 and then 100 and 150 and so on."

Bell eventually lost his place in the team on the Caribbean tour of 2009 for an extravagant cut that played a big part in England's dismissal for 51.

"It was probably the best thing that ever happened to me, getting dropped," Bell said last year. "Andy Flower gave me some really honest feedback at the time. I probably hadn't played well for a period of time in an England shirt."

A chastised Bell returned to the side six months later against Australia, scoring 53 and then 72 at The Oval in the final Test of the Ashes as England won the series 2-1. He has accumulated 1,519 runs at an average of 69.04 since his return and also finally got a century against Australia - 115 at Sydney in January - after 11 half centuries.

Bell has come a long way from the days he was called "Shermanator" - after the geeky, ginger-haired character from the movie American Pie - by Shane Warne.

"I've been called worse," Bell told Warne at the time. Today, the 29 year old can take pride from Swann's claim that he would pay to watch him.