It's often said that a player's career is 'at the crossroads'.
It's one of those aphorisms, - clichés 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.
4 hours ago