Saturday, 25 November 2006

Bell begins to right his 2005 wrongs

The irony of this situation will not have been lost on Ian Bell. 14 months ago, when England were recording their most impressive and memorable Test series triumph for 24 years, Bell recorded a pair. Timid and somewhat overawed, hindsight shows it was a mistake to pick the Warwickshire batsman ahead of the notoriously phlegmatic Graham Thorpe. In short, Bell was one of the least deserving MBEs of all time.

Yet England persevered with him. His talent as a classy, correct player had long since marked him out as England’s next big thing. In Pakistan, he began the series as England’s spare batsman, but ended it with two fifties and a century. But, in India, he averaged only in the low-20s and was rightly dropped for Alastair Cook. Yet Duncan Fletcher and co had seen enough in him to keep him above Owais Shah, so impressive in making 88 on debut, in the batting pecking order.

When Andrew Flintoff was declared unfit in the home series against Pakistan. Bell was the above candidate to replace him albeit in an unfamiliar position of number six. He responded with three beautiful hundreds, each innings more authoritative than the last. Number six will palpably not be his long-term position; but it helped him grow in confidence and develop as a Test player. The position had similar effects on the consummate Test number three, Ricky Ponting.

When Marcus Trescothick was forced to withdraw from this series, the general feeling was number three was England’s problem position. One could handle the apparently mentally scarred Bell occupying a spot at four or five, but for a man with an average of 17 against Australia to bat at three down under caused many to worry.

At Adelaide, Bell remained Thorpe-like phlegmatic despite the carnage unfolding all around him, ably handling the challenge posed by Messrs Warne, Lee and McGrath. He has certainly improved technically since the last Ashes, especially when facing balls in the corridor outside off-stump and against spin. Yet there is no doubt his biggest improvement is in the mind; even McGrath said “he looks a lot more confident out there, especially against Shane.” If this innings is a sign of things to come, my prediction that Bell could just be England’s most successful batsman down under may even prove correct.

Bell’s 160-ball vigil epitomised the qualities the selectors regard so highly; if the rest of the side can display such grit in the second innings, it is not inconceivable this Test will end in the most unlikely of draws.

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