For him, the Bell tolls
Dave Fulton says it is time for Ian Bell to step out of Kevin Pietersen's shadow and up to the Ashes plate.
By Dave Fulton
Last Updated: 18/08/09 4:45pm
Ian Bell resumes his Test career on Thursday after four months in the international wilderness knowing he has plenty to prove despite a record which has seen him compile over 3,000 runs at an average of more than 40 from 46 matches and includes eight hundreds and nineteen fifties.
Bell last played Test cricket for England in Jamaica, where he was part of the batting line up that succumbed for 51 against the pace and accuracy of an inspired Jerome Taylor.
It capped a poor winter for the Warwickshire man, who failed to nail down the number three position, to which he had seemed born. Technically correct and with sufficient weight of stroke to take the game away from a bowling side, Bell was expected by many - and I include myself among them - to establish himself at the top of the international game.
It did not quite work out for him at the first time of asking but the rise to the top of any sport is rarely straightforward. He only has to look at his captain, Andrew Strauss, who was dropped for the tour of Sri Lanka less than two years ago before bouncing back in style in New Zealand, to know that a little adversity can be the catalyst for greater things.
Ricky Ponting, Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer all found themselves surplus to requirements to the Australian side at different times during the mid-nineties while it took Steve Waugh took 27 Tests to record his first Test century. "I probably needed a kick up the backside and needed to knuckle down," Waugh told me when I interviewed him for The Captains' Tales.
Waugh was fortunate that his bowling kept him in the side for most of the late 1980's but given he was to become widely recognised as the toughest competitor in the game, it demonstrates that conquering the mental side of the game takes time.
At the moment Bell's harshest critics would bemoan his lack of presence and his inability to turn starts into match-winning contributions but the same might have been said of Damien Martyn in his twenties. Langer, moreover, took until 30 to establish himself and only then after he was granted a reprieve courtesy of Michael Slater's indifferent form on the 2001 Ashes tour.
Langer scored a hundred at the Oval from whence he never looked back. His fellow West Australian, Mike Hussey, only broke into the Australian team at 30.
Bell, still only 26, has the game; hopefully he can find that hard mental edge.
I believe he will benefit for not having Kevin Pietersen around. Pietersen is a big dominating presence in the England dressing room and a world-class player, to whom others look up and upon whom others sometimes rely. In that ill-feted match in Jamaica, Bell was playing fluently in the first innings until Pietersen entered the arena, whereupon Bell settled for the role of second fiddle to the extent that he went into his shell.
Just as the more introverted Jimmy Anderson thrived in the absence of Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison, so Bell might take a more domineering role without Pietersen for company and comparison.
There has been plenty of talk about his record against Australia (he averages 25) but in his two previous Ashes series he was up against the best in the world not just in terms of ability but in the way they could exploit any mental frailties.
While this Australian attack will come hard at the man Shane Warne christened 'Sherminator', it will hold no fear for him.
An interesting statistic is that each of Bell's hundreds have come after a colleague has first brought up three figures. When he bats at five or six the game has taken shape.
When England are in a position of strength he usually plays well. This time he will bat in Pietersen's number-four slot, which should keep him away from the brand new ball but is high enough in the order where he can dictate proceedings.
These next three Tests will give Ian Bell the opportunity to bury the jibes and to demonstrate to Australia that where once they faced a boy, there now stands a man ready to take centre stage.