Like all good things, it appears that Ian Bell’s England career is over. He was dropped for last winter’s tour of South Africa, but I refused to believe the end was nigh – he had, after all, been dropped before and managed to fight his way back.
In 118 Tests for England, Bell scored 7,727 runs at an average of 42.69 with 22 hundreds. In 161 ODIs for England, Bell scored 5,416 runs at an average of 37.87 with four hundreds. He left as England’s second highest run scorer across all formats (there were 188 T20i runs as well). He also left as something of an enigma.
Bell was my favourite England player during his time in international cricket. He was never brash or arrogant and he seemed a political eunuch in a side that, more than once, blew up during his career. No matter how severe the storm, however, Bell simply rode on through it, continuing to be Ian Bell as he went.
When he was on song, there were few finer sights to behold. No player could match Bell for grace and elegance. His driving in front of the wicket was akin to a batting Renaissance; rather than painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Bell painted scorecards with all manner of classical strokes that defined his art.
And, in a modern twist, like all great showmen, Bell more often than not left you wanting more. There was fallibility in his game that raised a multitude of questions. Could he score the hard runs? Was he all style and no substance? How could someone who was capable of perfection so frequently be found toiling around like a mere human?
The accusation was that Bell often got starts, scoring 20 or 30, before getting out. More pertinently, he scored a ‘pretty’ 20 or 30 before getting out.
Nothing encapsulated this more than the 25 runs Bell scored in the 2011 World Cup quarter final against Sri Lanka. It was a beautiful 25. I’m glad I saw it. But just when it looked like Bell would kick on and post a big score, he got himself out. And that was, sadly, too often the case – most bowlers weren’t good enough to get him out, so he found ways of doing their job for them.
I didn’t care. These moments only grew my fondness for him. They made him even more watchable. You had to see every moment that he was batting, for the curtain could be drawn abruptly at any moment.
Bell wasn’t a man you’d choose to bat for your life, but he was someone you’d choose to watch bat for the rest of it. He was a classically trained batsman in an era of special effects. He had the whole range; he could defend and attack and he could make it look effortless and he could make it look impossible. He was the Divine Comedy and his career, a masterpiece in its own right, took just as long as to complete as Dante took over his own.
Cricket is a statistically driven game and the statistics don’t look kindly upon Bell. He didn’t accumulate like Alastair Cook and he didn’t bash it like Kevin Pietersen. He was never England captain and he was never outspoken.
The moment, now, has passed. He’ll feature in no All Time XIs and he’ll not feature atop any statistical lists. I’m glad, however, that he played during my time for he was worth every frustration for each moment of perfection. I may never witness someone bat so beautifully again.
By Miles Reucroft