Ian Bell and the art of redefining perceptions

Some batsmen have a unique magnetism – a magnetism that ensures that people unhesitatingly dig deeper and deeper into their pockets, in a desperate bid to hunt for every last penny, so that they can cross borders and travel across the world just to watch them bat.

Players like Kevin Pietersen and Virender Sehwag naturally attract attention – their brash and breath-taking style of play forces the world to sit up and take notice. Meanwhile, cricket romantics feast over the likes VVS Laxman and Ian Bell – batsmen who possess such silken grace, that they are envied by ballet dancers. These two classes of batsmen are poles apart – Sehwag and Bell are as dissimilar as chalk and cheese. However, there is one common link between these players – you would empty your pockets to witness them in action.

When in full flow, Ian Bell is poetry in motion. Everything about his batting is near-perfect – it is almost like he authored the batting manual himself. Watching Bell bat is not just yet another event in your day – he makes it the highlight of your day. His sublime stroke-play will leave you in the paroxysms of ecstasy – he is the kind of batsman who reminds you about why you fell in love with the game in the first place.

Unfortunately, the incredible aesthetic beauty of Ian Bell’s batting often makes it easy to sideline his significant contributions. Despite being an integral member of the English side over the last few years, Bell has never really been spoken of in the same breath as his hard-as-nails skipper Alastair Cook, or his flamboyant, charismatic teammate Kevin Pietersen.

It is perhaps because many of his runs were “free” runs – in the early stages of his career, Bell seemed to deliver only when his team were already in a good position, and disappointed otherwise. He often perished in tight situations, and struggled to handle the perennial pressure of international cricket. And that was the world’s first impression of Ian Bell – that he was a classy, stylish batsman who couldn’t be relied upon when the team was in doldrums.

Bell’s presence at the crease in tricky circumstances never provided the sheer reassurance that a Cook, a Trott or a Collingwood provided – he was never able to inspire the feeling of “Everything is going to be alright, Bell is still there!” There is a world of difference between making runs and making tough runs. Bell always made runs – but the tough runs seemed to continually elude him.

Another likely reason is how easy Bell is on the eyes – Cook’s scratchy, ugly, taking-blows-on-the-body types of innings’ somehow makes him look more determined, and makes his knocks look more difficult, compared to the effortless ease with which Bell plays, despite batting on the exact same pitch and in the exact same conditions.

But, statistics never lie. And statistics prove Bell’s worth. He has amassed 6425 runs in 92 Tests, at a healthy average of 46.89. With twenty hundreds to his name, he is amongst the top seven English batsmen in terms of centuries, only five tons behind table-topper Alastair Cook. His conversion rate of 1.85 is simply superb – of the 57 innings where Bell has crossed the 50 run mark, he has managed to convert 20 of them to centuries.

As it often happens, first impressions are seldom the same as final ones. The transformation of Ian Bell’s reputation began on the tour of South Africa in 2010. His match saving, marathon five-hour knock of 78 in the third Test rated amongst the finest overseas performances by an English player in the 2000’s – he walked in to bat at 160/5, and had to face a terrifying South African attack, led by the increasingly menacing Dale Steyn.

In the Ashes that followed, he reserved his very best for pressure-cooker situations – while his teammates batted with nervous fragility when the chips were down, he was able to successfully deliver when he had his back to the wall. He averaged more than sixty-five in five consecutive series’ in that calendar year, and effortlessly settled into his new role as the Rock of English batting after the retirement of Paul Collingwood in March 2011.

While England was asserting its dominance in the ICC Test Rankings, Ian Bell was busy redefining perceptions: He was no longer yet another delightful batsman who couldn’t be counted upon in hard times – he had become a reliable, trustworthy run-machine who always put his country before himself.

Few series’ have showcased the newfound abilities of the resurrected Ian Bell as profoundly as the current Ashes. Losing their top-order cheaply has become a way of life for the English team this summer – the trio of Cook, Root and Trott have not given the Australian bowling attack any nightmares yet. In this delicate situation, Bell’s three tons have been priceless – coming in to bat with the scorecard reading 28/3 or 49/3 is never easy, but Bell has made it look like a cakewalk.

He has played one match-defining innings after another, and his impact over the result of series has been phenomenal. Taking into consideration the fact that he has already scored a mind-numbing 500 runs at a stunning average of 74.44, and that there is yet another Test left in the Ashes, his being awarded the man-of-the-series trophy remains to be a mere formality.

Every batsman takes some time to develop – every batsman needs to be given some time to expand his range of skills, and to mould his temperament in order to adjust to the unwavering, harsh demands of international cricket. Ian Bell may have taken longer than most batsmen, and he may have been given a longer rope than many. However, Dayle Hadlee had once said that sticking with Bell was a risk worth taking – in retrospect, he could not have been more right.

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