For Ian Bell, the beginning of the end came at the back end of the summer when he began to think about his future. It happens to all cricketers. The second even a scintilla of doubt creeps in, the edge inevitably goes.
Bell said that he considered things, and then decided it wasn’t time, and rededicated himself to the England cause. But it was too late. England gave him one final crack against Pakistan but the damage had been done.
He has, of course, vowed to work strenuously to regain his place, as one might expect him to say, and county attacks may suffer. The manner in which, for example, the Australian batsman Adam Voges, three years his senior at 36, has started to enjoy a late-flowering career is a lesson in never saying never, and perhaps the break will rejuvenate Bell. But Voges had never “considered his future”, and it really does look as if this ship has sailed, with the experienced backbone of the batting now resting on the captain and Joe Root.
In the 11 years since he made his debut against West Indies at Lord’s, there has been no batsman – not only for England but anywhere – who has been more pleasing on the eye than Bell in full flow, when he threads a cover drive economically through the gap and jogs to the other end to touch his bat ritualistically into the crease as the ball crosses the boundary.
His record of service marks him down as one of the most significant England cricketers of his generation. There have been 118 Tests, which places him level with Graham Gooch and behind only Alec Stewart and Alastair Cook. He is joint third in the list of England century makers with 22, alongside Wally Hammond, Geoffrey Boycott and Colin Cowdrey, who, as a right-hander, most resembled his ease of strokeplay and timing. He is also eighth on the list of England run-makers with 7,727, at an average of 42, well down the list in that latter regard. Yet only five points behind Boycott, who sits top of the list of those to have played 100 or more matches, and mitigated, as are all England players, by playing half their games in more bowler-friendly conditions.
Oddly, Bell’s career had started to take a downturn at that age, around 31, when the rough edges that can go with the exuberance of youth had been chamfered off and allied to the pragmatism of experience. It is the time of their professional lives at which batsmen might expect to be in their pomp. Yet Bell started to go off the boil, a fragility exploited by bowlers, in which he tends to play half a bat too far inside the line, hitting extra cover in defence where others hit mid-off.
In August 2013, he made an important century at Chester-le-Street which was instrumental in winning a decisive Test – with it the Ashes – and rounding off a magnificent series in which he also made hundreds at Trent Bridge and Lord’s. Since that innings though, he has played 44 completed innings, averaging 29, with 167 against India at the Ageas Bowl in 2014 and 143 against West Indies in Antigua in April this year as his only centuries.
For a player of Bell’s stature, experience and age, there is some allowance to be made for a dip in form, in the belief that one innings, a slice of good fortune in a dropped catch or an umpiring decision can transform things. Batsmen live on the idea there is always a corner to be turned. After a while though, there are no more corners and the road runs straight.
Bell turned his final corner in Antigua where he grafted out an innings. Since then, though, rather than use it as a launchpad for a run of form, he has made only 428 runs in 21 completed innings, with an average of 20. There was an important cameo in the second innings against Australia at Edgbaston, when his unbeaten 65 helped make light of a run chase of a kind that once would spook an England team into inertia, but it has been a rare sighting of Bell at his best. In the end there is a limit to the allowance that can be made.
He might have missed out on the recent series against Pakistan but there remained an imperative to have the experience of Bell, seen as one of the better players of spin at England’s disposal, against Pakistan’s attack on turning surfaces. But it was painful at times to watch him grit his teeth and grind out runs – 63 in four and a half hours in Abu Dhabi; 46 in two and three-quarter hours in Dubai; and, having hit his seventh ball for six, 40 in three and a half hours in Sharjah, in the course of which he so stagnated that he made only 16 in 27 overs in the afternoon session.
Bell seemed to be batting for his career against his natural instinct. His close catching, which had improved so that he had become the established second slip, deserted him and by the end of the series he had been removed from the cordon, a practical measure but also a psychological blow.
England might have persisted with Bell in South Africa, tried one more series in different conditions. But there would always have been a feeling that every innings he played was to preserve his place when the evidence pointed to someone in decline.
Now there are opportunities, chances for others to establish themselves alongside Cook and Root. Alex Hales looks certain to open with Cook but Bell’s place at three could go to Gary Ballance or, more obviously, Nick Compton, who until he was dropped two years ago had formed a strong opening partnership with Cook but batted at first drop for Middlesex last season.
Bell’s boots are large ones to fill, although he was rarely at his best at three. There could be a chance for Ballance at five but hearing anecdotally he has done nothing to address the technical difficulty that sees him play from the crease even on the front foot does not inspire confidence. James Taylor has done more to earn a spot.
Ian Bell’s high and low notes
Two years after first being called up to the England squad Bell finally makes his debut, and scores 70 in his first Test innings, against West Indies at The Oval.
Batting at No6, Bell becomes the first Englishman in 15 years to score centuries in three successive Tests, with knocks of 100 not out, 106 not out and 119 against Pakistan.
Is dropped from the Test side after scoring 29 and four – as England are bowled out for 51 – in the first Test in West Indies, which is lost by an innings and 23 runs. Bell returns to the side for the third Ashes Test that summer, only after Kevin Pietersen is injured.
Bell, previously criticised for brittleness under pressure, scores a match-saving 213-ball 78 as England draw the third Test against South Africa at Newlands.
Bell scores 235, his highest Test score, against India at The Oval as England win by an innings and eight runs. In 10 Test innings that summer, against Sri Lanka and India, Bell averages 119.28, with two fifties and four centuries.
The batsman is shortlisted for BBC Sports Personality of the Year having been man of the series by a distance as England won the Ashes 3-0, averaging 62.44 and posting four of England’s six best scores.
After England’s poor World Cup and the subsequent appointment of Andrew Strauss as director of cricket, Bell is dropped from the one-day side.
The 33-year-old scores 53 and 65 not out against Australia at Edgbaston, having managed either one or no runs in seven of his previous 11 innings, to cling on to his place in the Test side. “You have to keep backing the right horse and he’s the right horse,” says Alastair Cook.
Bell is guilty of two bad drops as England toil in the field during the opening day of the series against Pakistan. Mohammad Hafeez, dropped on seven, makes 98 and Asad Shafiq, dropped on 10, makes 107. The Test is drawn.
Bell says he is “absolutely gutted” after being left out of the squad to tour South Africa. Having scored three centuries during the 2013 Ashes series Bell has scored two since, in 45 attempts. Bell averaged 46.66 in his fist 160 Test innings, and 29.52 in 45 knocks since the summer of 2013. Simon Burnton
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010