Over the years, Ian Bell has been a man who has pleased the eye of many. Now, ahead of yet another crucial Ashes campaign, the out of form Ian Bell needs to prove that he has fulfilled his incredible promise as a top order batsman.
When people reflect on Bell's career, it will likely be in admiration of his gorgeous cover drives, impeccable balance and his graceful style. Rarely has England had at their disposal a man who makes batting look so easy.
Even towards the twilight of his career, Bell has emphatically shaken off the tag given to him by many critics for so long: He doesn't score runs when it counts. His brilliant 2013 Ashes series as well as that highly impressive 143 in Antigua earlier this year has proven that he certainly possesses stomach for the fight when the going gets tough.
Yet here we are again. Another bad period has hit Bell. Since that ton against the West Indies, in eight innings, Bell has a worrying average of 6.9 and a high score of just 29 - not really the sort of form he would want to be taking into the Ashes.
However, amongst those who criticise Bell, there are also those who have little doubt that he will return to his best form. The legendary Kumar Sangakkara is one of those people. 'I’ve always loved watching him bat', said the Sri Lankan batsman. 'There’s something very special about the way he bats. He’s not had the best of times in the recent past, but he’s a proven player and he’s stood up in really tough times for England.
'The artistry, the simplicity and grace – all of that comes in when you watch him. Spectators always latch on to players like Mahela and Bell, who just have that extraordinary ability of attracting spectators to watch them bat, and it’s been the same right throughout history in cricket.'
Indeed, all quality players have bad spells. Bell is a proven player and when he is in form, England win more often than not. It is a testament to his development as a batsman that he is no longer a man who scores pretty runs. Therefore, it is also fortunate that he has a technique that will guide him through the difficult times, which is why not as many people are as worried by his lack of runs as they could be.
Yet there is a bigger picture when you look at Bell's career, a picture of what might have been. Of course, a man who has 7,354 runs with 22 test centuries is a man of quality and class, adjectives that immediately come to mind when thinking of Bell. The fact that it is from 110 test matches, though, is perhaps the down point when looking at statistics.
Alistair Cook recently passed Graham Gooch's all-time England test runs record in the second test against New Zealand and then went on to reach 9,000 runs in the process. The feat was achieved by a man who has played four more tests than Bell, but when you consider that Cook opens that batting, something much more comfortable than Bell's customary position of four or five, along with the fact that the he has had consistent problems with technique over his career, it shows how good Cook actually is.
So why is Bell not topping the list? As said before, Bell bats middle order against a older ball (most of the time) and has rarely made technical adjustments to the extent that his England captain has made.
Despite Sangakkara comparing Bell to Jayawardene it is perhaps much more feasible to put the 33-year-old in the company of VVS Laxman. In 134 tests, Laxman scored 8,781 runs, with 17 centuries and 55 fifties. Like Bell, the former Indian batsman was a graceful middle-order player who attracted the eye of many. Some have even said that, on his day, he was as good to watch as his great counterpart Sachin Tendulkar, which is not a bad complement.
Nevertheless, for all his style, Laxman's poor conversion rate from fifties into hundreds meant that he could never be put into the same bracket as some of the game's greats. He was a player that, despite his elegance, never fully lived up to his outstanding talent.
And with that perhaps solves the conundrum of Bell's career - conversion rate. The Warwickshire batsman has 42 fifties to go with his 22 hundreds which, for good a record as good as it may seem, can be seen as disappointing. The great batsmen are judged on runs and hundreds, that's it. And for the amount of tests he has played, Bell will admit himself that he would have like to have scored more runs.
Now if this was a player with a dodgy technique, wrong mentality or constant disruptions in concentration, then one could sympathise with Bell. Yet he boasts all of these qualities. He has a technique that many a test match player would kill for, a mentality and professionalism up there with the best, and has shown on several occasions that his concentration has proven vital to the England cause.
So, with all these attributes it makes perfect sense to be mystified at why Bell hasn't gone on to be the very best he can be. It seems ridiculous that Bell is going through another period where runs are evading him at the moment.
'Bell lacks confidence and apparently he is a player who needs constant reassurance,' said former England batsman and now TMS pundit Geoffrey Boycott. 'There is no technical problem. He is a beautiful batsman with plenty of shots but it is about having a cricket brain that thinks well and works out when to attack or defend. After more than 100 Tests he should be self-assured and giving advice to the younger players, not needing that reassurance himself.'
Lack of confidence is potentially another issue, and it is something that may have been an issue in times gone by.
After the defeat at Adelaide during the disastrous 2013/14 Ashes series, people were calling for Bell to move up to number three. He scored a classy 72 not out amidst yet another England first innings collapse during that second test and remained England's most in form player after his heroics during the home series earlier that year.
And, given his superb success at number three during the 4-0 whitewash of India during the glory days of the 2011 summer, the doubt that his form would dip after moving a couple of places up the order remained little. Bell even said after the first test in Brisbane, in which the aftermath culminated in the departure of the ever reliable Jonathan Trott, that he was prepared to bat higher. Bell said: "We've spoken about it, and I've said I'm absolutely willing to go to number three." It never happened. England went with Joe Root in that position for the rest of the series and his and Bell's form tailed off significantly. It was another chance for Bell to make the difference that he did not take.
Now at one position higher at number four, Ian Bell is under pressure to deliver yet again. He is 33 years old and undoubtably has several years left in him. Yet if Bell again fails to perform to the level that his outstanding ability and talent demands, we might look back on his career and wonder what might have been.
England need Bell to return to the player everyone knows he can be, and fast.
Can Ian Bell be England's top run scorer in the upcoming Ashes?
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