Thursday, June 13, Eng v SL, all day
I did start with the best of intentions. That this journal wasn’t going to stray too far away from county cricket into considering England issues. But then my Surrey membership was acquired so that I could watch England, so why so sheepish? Especially when I’ve something to crow about. Before the beginning of the Ashes, and after having seen this Champions’ Trophy match, I submitted a piece to Cricinfo. To the fans’ section. They didn’t use it. Oh well. I still get to feel mighty prescient. I wrote about the form of Ian Bell, or at least the difficulty of “Being Ian Bell” to give it the Charlie Kaufmann treatment. England were never going to use him as a Test opener, but I do feel smug about debunking the myth that Bell always wilts under pressure – seeing when and how he scored his runs in the 2013 Ashes.
What follows is a briefer version (phew) of my Cricinfo rant. In this ODI, which the Lankans won thanks to some marvellously astute batting by Sangakkara and some calculated biffing by Kulasekara, Bell actually fell in the manner I was moaning about: by trying to be too aggressive. He hit one to mid-off, I think, having previously played two or three peerless straight drives all along the ground. The highlight of my day, mind, was sitting next to two ladies in their far-from-nervous nineties who must be Surrey’s most venerable members. They had seen Bradman in 1934 and 1948, and were still all a-flutter about Keith Miller. Someone should interview them. Soon. Anyway, here’s my bit of (pre-Ashes) Bell-ringing.
“It must be hard being Ian Bell. Nothing is ever enough for some people. Play well and they say the bowling was tame. Get out cheaply and you threw it away. Fight all the rearguards you want, but you’ll never be Brigadier Block. I blame Shane Warne. For years, that Sherminator sledge hung around Bell like a bad smell. Still today, after 88 Tests, there’s a whiff about him of the teenager who’s borrowed his dad’s aftershave. This has to stop. Bell has spent so long trying to appear so macho (cue up that Sinitta song) that it’s become a dangerous habit. He’s like the guy at the gym who canes the Maximuscle. Forget the timid Bell of 2005; it’s over-assertiveness that’s been his downfall lately. Charging blindly at spinners, attempting to cuff seamers over the covers, losing his shape in the process. With his exquisite timing and technique, Bell doesn’t need muscles and machismo, but he seems obsessed with acting out the role of the aggressive batsman.
The Bell I saw in the recent ODI series against New Zealand was a player yearning for, and mostly responding to, responsibility. Bell himself has said that he relishes opening the batting and having a settled position at No 2. His records bear that out. And contrary to the received wisdom about Bell – that he frequently wilts under pressure – those ODI records encouraged a hunch I had about the mature Bell’s Test performances: that when the going gets tough, Bell actually gets going. As for the canard about him only scoring hundreds when somebody else has struck one first, well, since he’s spent most of his time in Tests batting at No 5 and No 6, you’d hope so – otherwise he’d have been propping up a pretty ropey top order.
A study of when Bell has scored his runs in his last 50 Test innings is revealing. True, he has been guilty of a rash of scores in the twenties, but it’s the easy runs that Bell hasn’t been scoring that heavily. His biggest failing is arguably a failure to cash-in when the going is good; when the heat is on, however, Bell plays a cool hand more often than not. Let me explain. It’s not a very scientific measure, but giving simple ratings from zero to five according the pressure of an innings is instructive. It’s based on the team total at the fall of wicket when Bell goes in. A score of 100 or above is zero-rated: for our purposes, a free bar as far as the batsman is concerned. The rest are rated thus: 80-99 on the board represents a pressure rating of one; 60-79 is two; 40-59 is three; 20-39 is four; and anything less than 19 warrants the maximum rating of five.
Therefore, the majority (just) of Bell’s knocks in his last 50 Test innings – going back from Headingley this year to Brisbane in November 2010 – have been under “no pressure”. In those 26 innings, Bell scored 875 runs at 43.75 (six not outs) with three hundreds and four fifties. Not bad, but not outstanding either. In the 24 innings when the pressure was on to varying degrees, he scored 1187 runs at 59.35 (four not outs) with three hundreds and eight fifties. Much, much better. Those tons were all against India and their pop-gun seamers, but two were made at No 3, and they were daddy hundreds: 159 and 235. In fact, in his four innings with a pressure rating of five, Bell averaged 71.6. And in three out of five knocks with a pressure rating of four, he scored a fifty (the other two resulted in single-figure scores against Ajmal, his recent nemesis, in the UAE).
Where is all this heading? Well, apart from making the point that the mature Bell is no soft touch, this analysis suggests to me that Bell needs to be given more not less responsibility and that if he trusted his own game, and dispensed with his macho-man antics, he would be a hugely effective player – England’s Jayawardene, maybe, where Trott is our Dravid. Don’t forget that Bell was brought up (ever since that fateful remark of Daryl Hadlee’s about him being the best 16-year-old he’d ever seen) to bat No 3 for England. Unlike Ponting – a very different character for sure – who graduated to the role for Australia, Bell was promoted too early to that position. And now Trott, who used to bat one place below Bell at No 4 for Warwickshire, has the spot nailed down. I can’t help but imagine Bell must feel slightly jilted in the circumstances.
Just in time for the Ashes, the solution seems obvious, although I doubt it will ever happen: a buoyed-up, focused and relentless Ian Bell to open in Tests for England, allowing Joe Root to continue to bat with the joys of spring at No 5 or No 6. I’ll dream on, shall I?”
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