I attended my first day of live cricket at Old Trafford on the 11th August 2005. This makes me incredibly fortunate for two reasons. Firstly, my first taste of live cricket was the first day of the middle test of the Ashes summer that would capture the British public’s imagination. Secondly, it was the day that Michael Vaughan looked every bit the great player he could have been and the day on which Shane Warne took his 600th test wicket. Vaughan’s 166 will live long in the memory as he really took the attack to Australia that day, I also remember a half century from Trescothick in the morning and watching McGrath and Lee bowl in tandem was something I probably didn’t appreciate as much as I should have done! But if I’m being totally honest, I don’t even remember Vaughan’s century as much as I remember a half-century late in the day from a 23-year-old Ian Bell.
Ian Bell was already fascinating me. I hadn’t been able to watch much of the 2005 series, although I had avidly watched the highlights and my impression of Bell was that he seemed to play a lot of nice looking shots but get out cheaply. I have always been a massive fan of the underdog and he was the underdog of that series, so I was urging him to do well at Old Trafford. I’d love to sit here and tell you that I knew he would be a classy individual, that I knew he would go on to score a lot of runs for England or whatever, however I didn’t notice any of that. It was 10 years ago so my memory of any of the innings is sketchy! I just distinctly remember looking up to the scoreboard, feeling almost proud that he’d managed to reach 50, and then gutted when he got out 9 runs later.
Bell is one of my favourite cricketers. There are few cricketers that I could quite happily spend 6 hours in front of the TV watching them bat but Bell is certainly one of them. For the last 10 years, I’ve been following his career with incredible interest and seen how he’s flourished into one of England’s greatest batsmen. Over the course of 115 tests he’s scored over 7,000 runs at an average of 43 with 22 hundreds. There is no question he deserves his place amongst the greats of English cricket yet why does it seem to me that he is grossly underappreciated?
It’s over simplifying sport to split its players into two main categories however I see a definite divide between those with talent and those who graft. Talented sportspeople are rarely consistent, grafters rarely have unnatural talent. In team sports you need a balance of the two to be the best team, which funnily enough is in essence Newton’s third law of motion, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. (Of course, as a side note, there are certain talents who cross the boundary and become consistent. I am of course, talking about the Sachin Tendulkar’s and Lionel Messi’s of this world. These players wouldn’t occur in the perfection of nature yet are more common in the chaos of man.) Moving back to my original point, grafters are under-appreciated which, as Newton would tell you, implies talents are over-appreciated. Alastair Cook will never receive the amount of admiration Kevin Pietersen got despite Cook being more consistent resulting in scoring more runs.
Where this whole discussion regarding science and cricket falls down is with the example of Ian Bell. I don’t question that Bell is the most technically gifted batter I have ever seen play for England and probably ever will see. Bell’s problem was always that he never scored runs when England were in a rut. So naturally, given those observations, you would assume he’s a talent and loved by everyone unnecessarily. That simply isn’t true: he’s an anomaly, an outlier. All throughout his career people have questioned his ability, his temperament and consequently his place in every England side he’s been in. He’s almost treated as a grafter by the public despite clearly, in my eyes, being a talent.
His strike rate in test matches is just over 50, which is considerably less than Pietersen’s at 61 yet only just higher than Cook’s at 46. This would seem to suggest his style of play is more slanted towards battling for scores, rather than breezing his way to centuries, however can anyone who has seen him play honestly suggest this is the case? Ian Bell is the most graceful batter you will ever see pull on an England shirt. On top of that, breezing towards a century isn’t the definition of talent. Talent is being graceful; grafting is scoring in whatever style. Cook is more likely to hang around than Pietersen or Bell.
It’s possible that the media, and seemingly public, view of him is largely based around the fact his talent would seem to point to a greater return of runs than has occurred. After all, if he was England’s greatest run scorer and not Cook then I don’t think many people would be surprised. So therefore maybe criticisms of him are totally justified and people like me praise him too much. Maybe it’s a case of potential being unfulfilled.
I’ve used Cook and Pietersen as reference points throughout that analysis for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they are two players who very definitely fit into the grafters and talent categories respectfully, but furthermore they are players that excel in both categories. They are world-class players in their own right. Thus they are the only players you can compare Bell to. He is similar to both in different regards, played with both and is the only other current cricketer residing in England top 10 run scorers of all time in test cricket. That last sentence is why the public’s view that Bell somehow has never been good enough for England is absurd in the extreme!
However, maybe using Pietersen and Cook as examples is exactly the downfall of my argument as both are probably players who have crossed the divide. Cook has an unusual hunger for runs and an inhuman concentration level, in his prime Pietersen was basically unstoppable. That would lead to the conclusion, and it’s only just occurred to me, that Ian Bell’s under-value is because he’s been playing alongside at least one of those two for the entirety of his career. Rather than being appreciated for who he is, he’s permanently being compared to Cook and Pietersen, and at one point Strauss and Trott too (god, how good was our batting line up?!).
I mention this because only Pietersen and Cook have scored more test centuries than the Warwickshire man. Only those two, Gooch, Stewart, Gower, Boycott, Atherton and Cowdrey have scored more runs but Bell has a better average than Atherton, Gooch and Stewart. Whatever way you look at it, Bell deserves his place amongst the legends of English batting, but is still lagging behind his teammates. He’s scored a century against every test side and he’s scored at least one on every continent. He’s one of only two English players to have been in the winning side of 5 Ashes series and he was deservedly player of the series in the 2013 edition. Even in 2015, when he was far from his best, it was his innings at Edgbaston that steered England home in the crucial test match. On top of all of that, he has retired from ODI’s as England’s leading run scorer of all time in that format. Therefore I conclude that he has fulfilled his potential, it’s just more likely he’s being unfairly compared to his teammates.
Whatever the reason for Ian Bell being unappreciated, it is simply baffling. In no other country would a sportsman do so much good for his side yet continue to be doubted at the nearest opportunity. If Ian Bell was 10 years older or younger, he would be revered as a legend however he was discovered under Fletcher, bloomed under Flower (please excuse the dreadful pun) and has since become a leader of the batting order, just like Pietersen and Cook. It seems unfortunate timing more than anything else.
There was talk of him quitting following this Ashes however he’s decided to postpone his retirement for a bit longer, which I for one am greatly relieved about. Whatever his form, an England without Ian Bell is much weaker than a side with him. However, he won’t last forever and in these, his final years as an England player, I urge people to appreciate him for what he is – one of England’s greats.