"This game brings you realism," Ian Bell says as, sitting on a plastic chair in a bare room at Old Trafford, he reflects thoughtfully on a Test career that is finally flourishing with a sense of lasting gravitas rather than just fleeting majesty.
Bell has always been a sumptuous batsman but it is only now, after successive Ashes Test centuries have been instrumental in England building a 2-0 lead in this series, that there is wider recognition of his ability to instil patience and tenacity into his sublime shot-making.
"There's no doubt I've had my share of lows," he says with a little smile as he remembers those dispiriting moments when his capacity for losing his wicket just as he appeared established at the crease meant that his name was ridiculed by England supporters. "If you're going to be involved in cricket a long time you accept that there are going to be highs and lows – but my worst lows came during the early part of my career. I had some good lessons to absorb against world-class players at a young age and they made me a tougher cricketer. They basically made me realise how much I had to improve."
It is striking that Bell should be so open in addressing his past fallibility. He almost seems to relish talking more about adversity than lingering over his recent form, which has made him only the fourth England batsman, alongside Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Chris Broad, to have scored hundreds in three consecutive Ashes Tests. When England beat Australia in the fifth Test in Sydney in January 2011, to retain the Ashes, Bell hit 115. Yet his two centuries this summer have been even more impressive and made him, alongside Jimmy Anderson, the England player who has done most to define the difference between the two teams. Bell has come out to bat at difficult moments, especially when England were reeling at 28 for three after five overs on the opening morning at Lord's. But his application and concentration have been exemplary and stand in stark contrast to those of Australia's batsmen, who appear to be using the flawed model of past Bell innings as their template.
Bell has scored 317 runs in the two Tests of this Investec Ashes series, at an average of 79.25; but, as imposingly, he has been willing to bat for long periods. He has spent over 15 and a half hours facing Australia's wilting bowlers. In this way Bell has worn down Australia's strongest weapon – their pace attack – and given his own bowlers much longer to recuperate.
"We try and give our guys as much rest as they need because it's tough to get 20 wickets in a match," he adds. "It's not just about runs but also taking time at the crease which allows your bowlers to recover. That's been a factor."
Bell's maturity and consistency have been vital and he soon returns to the lack of such attributes in his embryonic career. "I've been dropped from the Test team two or three times," he admits. "I've also been dropped two or three times from the one-day team but it's how you react to failure that's most important. If you think back to me being dropped after we were bowled out for 51 against the West Indies [in Andy Flower's first Test as England coach in 2009] that was a real low.
"But I've been lucky always to be surrounded by good people at England. Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss sat down with me in Antigua and didn't make me feel like a scapegoat. They made me feel that they still believed in me and wanted me to go away and work on my game and fight my way back. It was probably the best thing that happened to me because I was young enough to become a better player.
"When you're on tour and you're out of the side it's tough. At nets the guys in the team are always going to bat before you and it's easy to feel frustrated. But I did a lot of physical work with Reg Dickason [then England's head of security]. I'd get up at six in the morning to do boxing and physical work with him. Sometimes I didn't want to do it but toughness comes from doing things you don't always want to do. I used that time to become physically and mentally stronger and I was ready when I got the chance to get back into the team after Kevin Pietersen was injured during the 2009 Ashes."
A previous Ashes series, the tumultuous 2005 epic in which Bell played in all five Tests as a nervy newcomer, resonates more strongly. He scored only 171 runs in 10 innings – and in the last two Tests he contributed 12 runs in total and even succumbed to the indignity of bagging a pair at The Oval as the rest of the team and the entire country celebrated England finally regaining the Ashes.
"I had such mixed feelings," he concedes. "2005 will always be a special series for everyone because breaking Australia's dominance, after so long, meant so much. But, personally, there were massive question marks over me. I still have them now as I look back at that series. Was I ready? Mentally? Technically? I'm not sure. I'd scored my runs in county cricket and in three Tests against West Indies and Bangladesh [after three innings, two of which left him undefeated, Bell boasted an almost hilarious Test average of 297].
"But I then came up against one of the best teams of all time. In a way I'm glad to have played against them. Not many players in our team now, or even in world cricket, can say they know what it's like to play against them. Unless you've actually been in the middle you just can't appreciate the intensity of playing against that kind of team. I'd obviously have preferred to face them later in my career and had success against them – but that series was a real eye-opener as to what it takes to make it at the highest level of Test cricket."
The only Test where Bell scored significant runs in 2005 was at Old Trafford, where he followed his 59 in the first innings with 65 as England drew a tense match. "I also took three catches, including a decent one at short leg off Ashley Giles, and so I made a small contribution. But that Test was one where the whole impact of the Ashes came home to me. I remember driving to Old Trafford and there were queues everywhere and you could hardly get into the ground. As a young player you see the Botham Ashes and you think 'Yeah, great', but until you're involved in something like that you don't understand how much it means to both sides."
If Australia were abject when batting at Lord's a couple of weeks ago, the unpredictable nature of the first Test at Trent Bridge produced a contest with drama and tension that rivalled anything conjured up in 2005. "It reminded me a lot of the Edgbaston Test from that series [when England survived a late fightback by Australia's lower order to win by two runs]. There were definitely moments at Trent Bridge, on the last day, when we felt it was slipping away. But lunch came at the right time for us and our dressing room had real clarity. Australia needed only 20 but Matt Prior spoke really well. He said we just needed one chance – and that's what happened. Jimmy [Anderson] had been phenomenal all morning and he came back after lunch and got us that one last chance we needed."
Bell explains why his Trent Bridge century was superior to his innings-saving 109 at Lord's, even though he was arguably the real man of the match, ahead of Joe Root, in that second Test. "Scoring a hundred at Lord's is always special but the conditions at Trent Bridge made it the better knock. It was quite testing. As a middle-order batter the hardest thing is to start against spin or reverse swing and when I came in it was reversing a long way. I'd improved after playing in subcontinental conditions and, after the series in India in the winter, I tried to put that into my game.
"The Aussies all reversed it and did it very well. They swung it both ways and it was very difficult. Lord's was a much more traditional English swingy day – a bit more what we're used to – but a reversing ball at Trent Bridge made it all the more challenging. And to have scored a hundred in one of the best ever Tests means a lot."
Apart from his obvious experience as he prepares for his 91st Test, which starts on Thursday, what does Bell identify as the real difference between him now and in 2005? "Self-belief," he stresses. "Just absolute belief that I can go out there and compete with the best players in the world. And I also understand that the psychological element of the game is one we all need to work on constantly. That's why I still see Mark Bawden [the England team psychologist] even when I'm in good form. It's just like going into the nets and working on your cover drive. You need to work hard on your mind. I didn't understand that as a young player."
It is also obvious to see the ease in Bell as, at an Asda Kwik Cricket community day, he helps coach local school children at Old Trafford, with an assurance and sense of fun that was missing from his public persona in 2005. As he explains later: "Part of me has always been interested in coaching. A lot of the people I admire most are coaches. Graham Gooch and Andy Flower are great role models and hopefully, one day, I'll be able to pass on some good lessons, just like they have done to me."
Bell might be more naturally gifted than most international cricketers but his past demons and doubts will also enable him to empathise with less talented players he might coach. He adds: "I definitely think I'll be sympathetic and understanding. I know how hard it is to reach this point so that might be useful as a coach."
He nods emphatically when asked if he can imagine himself still playing Test cricket in another five years. "I'm 31 now and, as a batsman, I feel I'm in my prime. Of course anything can happen and you don't want to look too far ahead but I'd love to play for England as long as I possibly can.
"I feel like, at last, I'm in a really good position and I want to make the very most of this series and the next few years. I've had some tough lessons but they've made me the cricketer I am right now."
Visit your.asda.com/kwik-cricket or follow @asdakwikcricket for more information on Kwik Cricket community daysThis article was written by Donald McRae, for The Guardian on Tuesday 30th July 2013 22.05 Europe/London
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