20.11.13

At the Crossroads

It's often said that a player's career is 'at the crossroads'.

It's one of those aphorisms, - clich├ęs in fact - which should only be used with extreme care. To use it more freely is to dissipate both its meaning and its significance.

It was never used very often about Ian Bell.

Ian Bell, from his Warwickshire childhood, was always a prodigy. At sixteen he was described by the New Zealand Under-19 coach, Dayle Hadlee, as the best player of his age he'd ever seen (this was well into the era of Tendulkar, but presumably Hadlee never saw the young Sachin live), and his ascent to the England team in which he made his debut with a cultured 70 against the West Indies at The Oval in August 2004, was completed with as much ease as one of his innings. It was difficult to shake the feeling that here was someone very special, but the way in which a few of his predecessor prodigies in the England side - John Crawley, Mark Ramprakash - had found the step to Test cricket a trial in both mental and physical terms, encouraged caution. Anyone who thought otherwise was riding for a fall.

In Bell's case the fall came the following year, during the greatest Test series of them all. Bell, 23 now, was tormented by Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath. He wasn't the first, and he wouldn't be the last, but his experience raised questions which had never arisen before.

In the years that followed, as England's off-field management went through its own period of transition - from Fletcher to Moores and eventually on to Andy Flower - Bell established himself in the side to an extent, but often failed to convince. He couldn't make runs under real pressure, they said. He only made centuries when another player had done so in the same innings. He wasn't a three, nor a four, people said, even though he made his fair share of runs in both positions. Was he a six? Or a five? After a run of relative failures while batting at three in 2008 and early 2009, he was dropped during England's last, unsuccessful, West Indies tour, before returning during the Ashes summer.

Thus began the second coming of Ian Bell.

In 2011, when consistent, implacable, high quality runs at home against Sri Lanka and India quickly followed performances of equal skill and assurance in Australia, it finally looked as though Ian Bell was becoming the player he had always threatened to be. There has always been an innate diffidence about his body language which has sometimes given an illusory impression of his character but there was now a welcome touch of arrogance; a sense that he was starting to realize how good he was, and how good he could be.

After that, though, his performances began to slip again, to the point where, as Australia arrived in England last summer, people were again starting to question him. These queries were triumphantly dispelled by Bell's three Ashes hundreds at Trent Bridge, Lord's and Chester-Le-Street, heady combinations of fine defensive technique, grace under pressure and as wide a range of textbook strokes as has been seen from an English batsman since the post-war heyday of May and Cowdrey.

Now, on the eve of his sixth Ashes series, it can be argued that Bell's career once more stands at a crossroads. His performances in 2013 have firmly established him as one of the finest English batsmen of the modern era, even though he lacks the defining charisma and daring of Kevin Pietersen or the insatiable run-hunger of Alastair Cook.

This, though, is a batsman with the physical and technical resources to be truly great; in the era of power bats, diminished bowlers and slumbering pitches, he should be averaging in excess of 50. His current mark of 46, coloured by too many early dismissals, fails to do him justice.

Over the next seven weeks, from Brisbane to Sydney, Bell has a golden opportunity to take another series of steps towards being the player he always promised to be.

As always, if he gets through the early overs, he, along with the series, will be desperately worth watching.

3 comments:

Graeme said...

Do you think that British cricket fans over-rate the significance of the Ashes test matches?

I raise this point because I saw in the press recently that one of the English team has played in 4 Ashes series and been on the losing side in only one. His averages for those series were:

27.60
24.66
127.66
27.7

No doubt you have guessed this is Alastair Cook. But what a contrast it makes against his overall stats of 7800 runs at 47.85. It ends up with a respectable average of 44 but without the 2010/11 series, this is quite a poor record.

Now for Bell,his averages have been :
17.1
33.1
28
65.8
62.44

overall against Australia he averages 39 against Cook's 44.

In which set of stats do you place more confidence? Cook's are biased by an exceptional series but both players have struggled against Australia and not only during the Warne/McGrath era. But Bell does seem to show more consistency.

Brian Carpenter said...

Thanks, Graeme.

I do think that cricket followers in England place too much emphasis on Ashes cricket, but this has been encouraged by the media in recent years (and because there's much more of it than there used to be).

The stats are interesting in so far as they reflect, to some extent, the way Australia have declined (until the current game, anyway) as Cook and Bell have found their feet as international players.

But simple form always plays a part. Cook was in extraordinary form in 2010-11, Bell in 2013. Cook was shaky last summer.

For this series it's too early to tell. I write with Cook not out after an hour's batting under severe pressure. Much will depend on how he plays tomorrow, both for this game and the series as a whole. Bell is likely to get his opportunity to step up tomorrow too.

manisha said...

india will winner of this t20worldcup 2014 in bangladesh

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