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Straight To Bell

Ian Bell needs to justify his brilliance in his new role as England’s ODI opener, says Phil Walker in The Grubber this week.

The 2007 World Cup in the West Indies was a familiar omnishambles for England. Unsure of their best team, down on luck and morale, horribly disfigured by the winter’s Ashes whitewash, it was only going one way. The campaign would not only account for Duncan Fletcher as England coach; the forlorn, misbegotten figure of Andrew Flintoff would also be cut down to a more manageable size, as a slowly submerging pedalo provided the only metaphor worth clinging to.

It was a big fat muddle. Michael Vaughan was in there somewhere, as was Saj Mahmood and Monty Panesar. A lad called Strauss was scrapping away at three, trying to repair his game. And at the top of the order, not quite convincing – for he was in that place in his career where he didn’t quite convince – was Ian Ronnie Bell. (On that, how different would our perceptions of Bell be if Mr and Mrs Bell had gone the whole hog and called him Ronnie Ian Bell? Think of it: Ronnie Bell, cheeky chappy, Ron to his mates, gorgeous through the covers, likes a laugh etc? Different beast altogether…)

Anyway, Bell opened. He didn’t do great, scratching around for a 23-ball 7 in the showdown against South Africa that set the tone for a borderline-comic thrashing. And it was extra disheartening to see the Bell foibles come out – the hesitancy, the overplayed tics, those maddening calls of ‘wait’. Disheartening because in the other big one, against Australia a few days earlier, he’d been irresistible.

I remember that innings well. (I’ve always watched closely when Bell’s in, because he bats how I’d like to be able to do it myself.) Shaun Tait may have been unhinged that day, Nathan Bracken canny and Glenn McGrath Glenn McGrath, but Bell just dispensed with them all, like some recently made lieutenant  cuffing a few dusty specks off the stripes of his new outfit. He made 77 with nine sharp fours. He hit the ball on the ground, and unstoppably through the covers, confirming Fletcher’s then-assertion that Bell at his best is an excellent, high-percentage boundary hitter.

It didn’t last, of course. His problem back then, as in all cricket, had been a failure to nail the big score. Four fifties but no hundreds in the Ashes just gone, and then this 77 from 90 balls before a tame drive to extra cover at a critical time. Hey ho, we sighed. That’s Bell for you, and then the familiar follow-ups: Would he ever do himself justice? Would he ever learn?

England batsman Ian Bell hits a ball off

Well, he did learn. He went and became one of the world’s best batsmen. Before the mini blip over the winter (it happens) he had averaged 81 in Test cricket over two years. In that time he’d won and saved Test matches for England, making heavy runs in tough situations; his 159 against India at Trent Bridge last summer has to be the most complete English Test innings of recent years.

So now, just turned 30, he’s ready for the next stage. He bats No.5 in Tests and now he’s back as an opener in ODIs. He occupies the plum batting positions in both formats. It’s where a man of his talents deserves to be. His record in one-day cricket may not be good. One (beautiful) century in 108 ODIs is poor frankly. But this is a new start for England’s most accomplished player. If all goes well, he will, as Andy Flower envisions, dovetail with the left-handed Ali Cook, the two providing boundaries and ballast to set a platform for the freed-up dashers to come.

With the new rules bringing in a new ball from both ends, the days of the maverick pinch-whacker running around and showing his stumps to the quicks may be drifting out of vogue. And while there are concerns that Cook and Bell, with Jonathan Trott at No.3, are too lightweight, basically too damned correct, to fully exploit the first 15 overs, it’s a pragmatic decision based on sound sense. The theory here is that the musclebound middle order types who will be around at the 2015 World Cup – the likes of Stokes, Buttler, Bairstow, Morgan, Kieswetter, a few we haven’t met yet – will be liberated by the groundwork carved out at the top. It’s a better position to be 160-3 from 30 overs than 180-5.

That World Cup is everything now. It’s the final frontier for Flower’s England. And it’s in Australia and New Zealand. Where the pitches are true. Where the bounce is even. Where real cricket shots find full expression. Where class outs. I thought Bell was ripe for the opener’s role before it was announced. The more I think about it now, the more convincing it becomes.

Click here to watch Ian Bell’s sweep shot masterclass

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