Like Mark Ramprakash and Graeme Hick before him, Ian Bell is a supremely talented batsman who hasn’t quite lived up to his immense promise in test cricket. After finally being dropped after England were hustled out for 51 by the West Indies at Sabina Park in February last year, it looked like Bell would struggle to get back into the side.
Although his average of 40 was significantly higher than Ramprakash or Hick, many similarities with the two existed. He had failed to nail down the number three spot, had developed an annoying habit of getting out when well set and only seemed to score heavily when others were doing the same. Bell seemed a batsman happy to play the supporting act, but never the lead role. Unlike Ramprakash and Hick who were in and out of the side regularly, Bell could not argue that he hadn’t been given a fair run before being dropped, and many observers felt that he had had enough opportunities.
But on the evidence of his performances since being recalled against Australia at Edgbaston last summer, it seems that the selectors have been right and that now is time to reassess the Warwickshire batsman. Initially things didn’t seem to have changed as Bell got out after scoring an attractive fifty at Edgbaston and then followed that up with two failures at Headingley. The clamour to replace him was intense but the selectors decided that Ravi Bopara would be the fall guy and elevated Bell to the number three position for the crunch Oval test.
Here something seemed to change. Yes, Bell got out again when well set on 72. But this wasn’t a bright and breezy 72. He was all at sea initially against Mitchell Johnson and showed courage and concentration to get through and build what proved to be a very important innings. Unfortunately, as had always seemed to be the case in his career, Bell’s brave innings was overshadowed by others – this time Stuart Broad’s bowling and Jonathan Trott’s second innings ton on debut.
Next up in the 1st test of the South African series, Bell inexplicably left a straight one from Paul Harris in the 1st innings to be bowled for 5 and also failed in the second innings. Once again the clamour for Bell’s removal reached a crescendo and the selectors came close to dropping him in favour of another bowler for Durban. But Bell remained and it was here that the renaissance truly began with his 140 giving England the 1st innings lead they required to make South Africa capitulate to win the match. This wasn’t enough for the doubters who cited the statistic that Bell had still never scored a test match century unless one of his colleagues had done so previously.
In the next test at Newlands, Bell again gave his wicket away in the 1st innings when well set on 48, but this time followed it up with a battling 78, when in tandem with Paul Collingwood he marshalled an England rearguard that saved the test. We were now seeing substance as well as style, and character as well as class.
So onto Bangladesh. His 84 in the 1st test came when there was no pressure on and like Hick before him, one could even argue that he was worthy of a ‘flat track bully’ tag given his 350 runs for once out against the Bangladeshis. But no one can doubt the importance of his century in the current 2nd test, where he has saved England from the ignominy of a 1st innings deficit and likely defeat with a wonderfully composed 138 – his tenth test century. Of course Tim Bresnan could also reach three figures to keep the previously referred statistic alive, but these were not easy runs in the context of the match.
The onus now for Bell is to kick on from here. 714 runs at 51 since his return at Edgbaston is impressive and considering England have summer series against Bangladesh and Pakistan one should expect this renaissance to continue. But then come the Ashes in Australia and Bell’s chance to improve his dreadful record against England’s greatest foes. This will be Bell’s biggest test.
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