x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The highs and lows for Ian Bell

The Warwickshire batsman has been enjoying the best form of his career, but, sadly, he also lost his mentor and friend in the summer.

Ian Bell, the England cricketer, was instrumental in the whitewash against India in the summer.
Ian Bell, the England cricketer, was instrumental in the whitewash against India in the summer.

Ian Bell has always been blessed with an innate sense of timing. Usually it refers to the glorious aesthetic of his batting, but it is not solely confined to cover drives and leg glances.

The England batsman has timed a purple patch of batting form of the very deepest hue to coincide with his benefit year, the method by which English cricketers are rewarded for their loyalty to their county clubs.

"Not bad planning," he says.

The benefit scheme was devised over a century ago to financially assist long-serving but poorly-remunerated professional cricketers.

The fact Bell has a benefit dinner at the Crowne Plaza hotel on the Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai this evening shows just how much the lot of international cricketers has changed.

It is a long way from home in Warwickshire. And anyway, thanks to his excellence on the international stage, Bell has been increasingly rarely spotted in his county dressing room in recent times.

He says, however, that he regards himself as "a Warwickshire player who plays for England" rather than the other way round.

Swapping the early UK winter for a trip to the sunshine of the UAE is just the sort of reward his benefit committee deserve, he insists. They have been doing all the leg work this year, leaving him to concentrate on the easy bit: scoring Test match runs.

Happily, they have arrived in great numbers. In the past year, Bell has been almost Bradman-esque, with an average of 97 from 12 Test matches.

His form has stoked an Ashes success - his third in four attempts since starting his England career - a whitewash of India at home, and England's subsequent elevation to the top of the Test standings.

The rise and rise of both batsman and country has not been exclusively joyful, however. All the glories were offset by one significant loss during the summer, when the coach who had mentored Bell since he was 10 years old passed away.

Neal Abberley's influence, before he died in August after a battle against a heart condition, was immense.

When Bell was cut from the England side in February 2009, as the scapegoat for a batting aberration which saw them bowled out for 51 in a Test in Jamaica, he sought Abberley's counsel as a matter of course.

As always, the words on the other end of the telephone were not necessarily beautified. "Sometimes you don't want to hear it, but you need solid advice from people if you are going to improve," Bell says, of what he regards as a pivotal moment in his career.

Abberley first saw a glint of talent in a 10-year-old boy who had just missed out on selection for the Warwickshire schools side of his age group, and invited him along for winter training at Edgbaston.

After the best part of 20 years, that same batsman is up to fourth in the Test batting rankings, and has designs on becoming the best.

Only Alastair Cook, his England teammate, Kumar Sangakkara, his occasional Warwickshire teammate, and, at the top of the heap, Jacques Kallis, now lie above him.

"The goal is to get to No 1," Bell says, "and to keep contributing to keeping England at the top."

When Abberley passed away in the summer, Ashley Giles, another of his former Warwickshire charges who went on to play for England, said a vast number of players "owed him a huge debt of gratitude".

Bell was preparing to play in a Test against India, which would ultimately clinch England's ascension to the top of the world rankings, on his home ground in Birmingham when he heard the news.

It was just days since he had scored 159 at Trent Bridge in an innings that ranked as his most authoritative to date for England. He knew his old coach would have enjoyed that, and was looking forward to meeting up with him.

"I knew he wasn't well, that he had been in and out of hospital," he says. "It was a real shock to find out on the day before the Edgbaston Test match to find out he had passed away.

"My last text message on my phone had said, 'See you at the Test match', and I'd replied, 'Brilliant, see you there'.

"I look back now and feel really glad he had got to see me play the way I did through the Ashes in Australia and during this summer," Bell says.

"My last two innings of the summer, were my two best knocks for England, in terms of being fluent and dominating.

"He didn't see the double hundred [against India at the Oval], but he got to see the 159. For me, it is nice to know that. He took a lot of pleasure in seeing other people do well."

Bell's trip to the UAE could see him meet up with another coach who has been synonymous with his career.

Dayle Hadlee, the former New Zealand player and now coach at the Global Cricket Academy in Dubai, termed Bell the best 16 year old he had ever seen in his youth.

There have been a number of times over the course of his international career when Bell seemed to wilt under the burden of his prodigious talent.

Thanks to his flowering over the past two years, however, Hadlee can rest content in the fact he knew a thing or two about it.

And Bell, too. "When I was young, I didn't back my talent all the time," he says. "I was doubting myself a per cent, and that was all it took at that level.

"I committed to never doubting myself in Test cricket again, but just to go out there and play a positive brand of cricket."

pradley@thenational.ae