By Garfield Robinson
In February 2005, during the first test of the Wisden Trophy series at Sabina Park, I saw Ian Bell make four. It’s an innings that has remained with me. This was the game in which Jerome Taylor blew away England for 51 to bring the test to an abrupt and unexpected end after lunch on the fourth day. Bell, batting at number three, fell carelessly at the stroke of lunch, needlessly cutting at a wide delivery from left-arm spinner, Sulieman Benn, to accentuate the rot that had been set in motion by the earlier dismissal of Alastair Cook who was removed without scoring.
Considering the very short duration of the innings it might seem strange that it has lingered in my memory for so long, when many longer and more substantial knocks have long been forgotten. The answer is simple: whether scoring 2 or 200, Ian Bell is a most delightful batsman to watch.
In a way, the brief Sabina Park innings typified his talent and career. I can remember no delivery -- other than the one to which he lost his wicket of course – that avoided the middle of his bat. And though his runs took him all of 22 balls, he seemed totally at ease until he gave it all away, leaving those who recognize his rare talent to shake their heads wistfully.
You never get tired of watching Bell bat. He has a gift of movement bequeathed only to a precious few. At the crease, going forward or back, he is smooth, composed and balanced -- never hurried or ungainly. To see him bat is to wonder how he so often gets out without gathering his fill of runs.
It’s not that Bell has not done his fair bit for Queen and country. His batting average, now in the mid-forties, is highly serviceable, and he has compiled some of the most pleasant innings that you could ever hope to see. But it was always evident that he had the capacity to move away from mediocrity and push on to greatness.
The charge against him, and it was not an unreasonable one, has been that he only scores easy runs; that he did not posses the cussedness that enabled him to get big scores when his team is behind, nor the steel to stand and fight when the battle is hot. He seemed to shrink as bowlers breathed down his neck, flinging sledges in his direction. He only made centuries after others had made centuries, and never showed the ambition or the capacity to assume the responsibility of directing his side’s innings – to take the team on his shoulders and carry it to safety, or deep into enemy territory.
Hopefully, that has now changed. On the first day at Lords, Bell fashioned a century that held the onrushing Australians at bay. Arriving at the crease with the score at 28, after Shane Watson and Ryan Harris had knocked over three quick wickets and appeared intent on barreling further into the England batting line-up. The Warwickshire batsman stood tall, adding 99 with Jonathan Trott, and 144 with Jonny Bairstow; and though the day ended with England at 289/7, it was a better position than they seemed headed for when the Australians were charging in during the morning session. And the two quick wickets that fell shortly after Bell was dismissed showed the importance of his good work.
Batting became easier after the initial burst by the Australian bowlers, allowing the Bell, after battling to survive, to display his well-known charm. His driving through the covers, off front foot and back, was marked by the precision and appeal that has become his trademark, and clearly, his newfound determination has not diminished his allure.
What makes this Lords innings more compelling is that it comes after a match-winning and even more critical hundred in the second innings of the first test at Trent Bridge. Then, he entered the fray with England 121/3, and as his colleagues fell around him, stayed for 385 minutes, returning to the pavilion with the score at 371/8. The fact that England only won by 14 runs underlines the value of the performance.
Bell now needs to push on from here to secure his elevation to the status as one of the world’s premier batsmen. His gorgeous stroke-play will always be a part of his game, but now, if his recent sojourns in the middle are anything to go by, he has grown tougher, more resolute, and as a result, more formidable.