The Little Master
Ian Bell knows that Sachin Tendulkar is just one of England's obstacles in an Indian summer.
By Peter Fraser - Follow me on Twitter @SkySportsPeteF
Last Updated: 18/07/11 9:23pm
When Ian Bell takes his place in the England line-up against India at Lord's on Thursday, he will do so with 15 international hundreds to his name. But that will be in stark contrast to one member of the opposition.
India legend Sachin Tendulkar begins the series with 99 centuries for his country and he is expected to make that 100 at some point in what is almost certain to be his final tour of this country. It is a stunning statistic, even for a player who has long been recognised as an all-time great.
Therein exists the challenge that is facing England, who have aspirations of recording the two-Test margin of victory in a four-match series which is required to see them overtake India as the world's No.1 ranked team.
Bell himself represents one of the most improved players in the world game over the past 24 months and he comes into the series against India with an average of 47, 329 runs from just six innings in this winter's Ashes, and two hundreds and two fifties against an albeit tepid Sri Lanka attack.
It is a significant turnaround for the Warwickshire player, who was dropped in early 2009 after scoring less than 700 Test runs in the previous calendar year (the figure would have been even more damning had it not been for a seemingly anomalous 199 against South Africa). He is now an epitome of the ongoing improvement of the England team as a whole.
But Tendulkar and company represent a different bread, a blend of experience and skill. They have already achieved England's aims. The Little Master, who debuted for India at the remarkable age of 16, has scored half of Bell's total of 14 Test centuries against England alone.
And having studied Tendulkar while moving through the ranks at county level, Bell, who was fielding in Chennai in 2008 when Tendulkar's second innings century guided India to a six-wicket win over England, is more than aware of the task that awaits.
"His balance is fantastic," Bell told skysports.com of Tendulkar. "Plus the way he works situations, the way he works the bowlers. He is the best player who has ever played the game. Every time you watch these guys, when you are in the field, you want to get them out, but it is quite nice at times to see them get a few runs just so you can watch the way they go about their cricket.
"Tendulkar's balance and the way he hits the ball so straight are unbelievable to watch. From an early age at Warwickshire, when we were going through the youth system, we were always shown a lot of videos of Sachin. It was so we could see the way he plays, the balance, the footwork. He is someone I really admire."
Although not in his teens, Bell, like Tendulkar, made his debut at an early age. A baby-faced 22-year-old hit 70 runs from 130 balls against the West Indies at The Oval in 2004 and it was clear to see his ability as a batsman.
But for more than five years he was an example of unfulfilled talent. It was a frustration for England that he was failing to capitalise. Body language, decision-making and a capacity to cope on the grandest of stages came under scrutiny.
Selectors kept their composure and continued to pick Bell, despite a meagre total of just 171 runs in the team success of the 2005 Ashes, including a pair in the series-decider at The Oval, seemingly setting a tone of several years of personal underachievement.
Bell's eventual omission came in the aftermath of England's infamous capitulation at Sabina Park. It was a decision critics had been craving. But being dropped proved to be a kick-start.
Scepticism remained when he returned slowly for the final three matches of the 2009 Ashes. However, he has not looked back since a brilliant 140 against South Africa in Durban on Boxing Day of the same year and the game-saving 78 which followed in Cape Town. Bell has since found a perfect role as England's No.5. He represents one of the most effective, classy, deliberate and precise players at Test level.
"I'm really happy, to be honest with you," he said of his personal form. "It has been nice. I was so desperate, having had a good Ashes, to have a good comeback and show I was still hungry for runs. I'm really desperate to show everyone this summer that I can continue improving as a player and that I have got a bit more consistency to my game than I did in the early days."
It has been suggested that Bell's development has been due to the discovery of confidence. But to presume any professional sportsperson lacks self-belief would be naive and the now-29-year-old knows another factor is responsible.
"I'm now a very experienced player," he explained. "You learn from your mistakes. At times I look back and maybe I wasn't quite ready to play Test cricket as a 22-year-old. I still had a lot of learning to do. I always believed I had the right technique and talent, but gradually what I had to do was get the mental toughness to go with that.
"Probably at times I wasn't smart enough at Test level - I had the ability, but I didn't quite know how to use it. Whereas now, I believe, in the last two or three years I have started to have a mental side of my game, to understand situations, play under pressure, and use my ability.
"When you are under pressure you have to stay cool and calm. I remember innings when I was playing well against South Africa in England. I got really nice thirties and then probably played a poor shot. Obviously you are going to do that in the future as well, but I have started to handle pressure a bit better. I have found a method of doing that in Test cricket, which has been really important for me."
Bell also acknowledges that the gritty 78 against South Africa, when he batted for several hours alongside Paul Collingwood to rescue a draw, was a defining moment in his career.
"It wasn't a hundred, but it was a massively important innings for my career," he said. "People started looking at Ian Bell in a different way. I played under pressure, probably successfully for the first time. People had wanted me to play that type of innings for a long time. It was the first time I managed to really do it. It was defiance. It wasn't a hundred, but it is still one of the best innings I have ever played."
It is not all perfect for Bell. He will be grateful to return to Test cricket after just 81 runs in the one-day series against World Cup finalists Sri Lanka.
In order to accommodate captain Alastair Cook and county team-mate Jonathan Trott, Bell has been moved to No.6 in the batting order, where the role often requires him to score his runs at a high tempo. This is not in his style and his position in the team has been called into question as a result, much to his annoyance."Of course it was frustrating," said a man who is no doubt bored of hearing about the subject. "You want to keep scoring as many runs as possible. Obviously I was in a new role and I am having to do things slightly differently to what I used to do. It is always going to take a bit of time to get it right and find a method again when you are playing in a different position."
Bell added: "Obviously I prefer batting up the order and that is something I have done my whole career. But if this is the position they want me to play, then I am going to have to find a way of doing it and find the way quickly. It would be nice to have a bit of a run at it, learn from a few mistakes, and start to understand how to play the role. But I am willing to work as hard as I possibly can to make myself a good player at No.6. That is something I am prepared to dig in, fight, and do."
Back to Test cricket and there is a certain irony in the fact that Bell will be facing India at the peak of his powers. In his early years, the batsman benefited from the faith of his international coach. But a mild-mannered Zimbabwean is now plotting his downfall.
India coach Duncan Fletcher, the former England leader whose eight-year tenure ended in 2007, played arguably the greatest role in dragging the England team into the 21st Century and Bell is the eminent evidence.
Fletcher was the man charged with coaxing the inexperienced talent into an end product at international level. But his association with England concluded before his investment in Bell began to pay interest, meaning he will now have an opposing game-plan.
"He really moved me forward in my Test career in my early twenties," said Bell, who remained in occasional contact with Fletcher when the latter took up a consultancy role at Hampshire. "He obviously knows the England dressing room very well, which I guess is good for India. But as players we have matured and developed over the years, I'm 29 now. He knows how English cricket works and the pitches we will be playing on, so it is going to be a good challenge. India have got a good man with great knowledge."
Fletcher played a part in sticking with Bell in the memorable Ashes campaign of six years ago, preferring the rookie over the likes of seasoned England legends such as Graham Thorpe in the build-up to the series.
It was reported at the time that Bell was even prepared to adapt elements of his game, against his wishes, just to please his coach. A perfect example is the forward-press technique, which encourages the use of fast feet when playing against spin and was coincidentally designed by Fletcher after watching the likes of Tendulkar.
"I always look back at some of the stuff in 2005, when we beat Australia," remembered Bell. "He (Fletcher) was a real mastermind behind a lot of the tactics and the reason why we had success. He was very big on the forward-press when playing spin. It is a very basic thing, people always do it now. But he was one of the original people who started to talk about the forward-press and staying quite low to spinners. That is something that even now I still work on."
Facing India, though, is not an individual challenge. The emphasis in the current England camp is about the collective and the target is overtaking India as the best team, a feat which was not even achieved in the days of Fletcher.
"To get there would probably be the easier part, rather than to stay there for 10 years," admitted Bell. "That is what we want to do. Australia did not just get there, they stayed there for a long period of time. The goal of this team is to do exactly that. We want to get up the rankings to No.1 and stay there. We have that ambition, individually and collectively as a team."
Ian Bell will play in this summer's Test series against India with the adidas Incurza bat, designed for the more aggressive, forceful player. For stockists call 0870 240 4204.