Opinion: Pondering Bell's place in the order

Blog Opinion

You do wonder, when Bell shouts at himself after failing to execute a shot, whether he is trying to make each innings a Mona Lisa, each false stroke sparking a desire to slash the canvas and start again.

Given the deliciously mischievous tone of KP's much-discussed musings for The Telegraph this week, it was hard not to reach for the subtext in his observation that 'Ian Bell should bat at three. The time is right for him to take hold of that spot.'

The time probably is right – Bell has just been awarded the ECB's Player of the Year award – and it's a position he has long coveted. Indeed, for a while, when England allowed him to captain his beloved Bears, he batted himself there and Jonathan Trott at 4, this after Trott had established himself successfully as England's first-choice first-drop. With the absence now of both Pietersen and Trott, is Bell ready to step into perhaps the most difficult position in the batting order?

There have been conflicting messages: an apparent preference for number four subsequently backtracked (and you'd be surprised if this wasn't after a tip-off from the skipper) to a politic, 'I'm happy to bat anywhere for England'.

Bell's record in the different positions – averaging 39 at 3; 37 at 4; 48 at 5; 60 at 6 – certainly suggests he's better suited to coming in against an older ball, but of course the majority of his opportunities at 3 and 4 came early in his career, before he had learned his game fully. Don't judge a stat by its cover.

What is certainly not in doubt is that Bell oozes natural ability – you only have to watch him play county cricket to see him make it look Ramprakashianly easy – which is precisely the source of the frustrated sense, not entirely put to bed by this gong and the Ashes Man of the Series, that he hasn't quite yet done that talent justice.

The question always was whether he made enough match-defining contributions, whether the full unfurling of a sumptuous 360-degree game was seen only at inconsequential moments.

He was an all-court player, good on the Indian clay, the South African and Australian hardcourts (until the re-emergence of some fast-serving leftie, that is) and on the grass courts of England. But he didn't win enough slams. Even now, with a career average standing at 45.41, the perception remains that he hasn't fulfilled his potential, that he's dozy, error-prone.

Do we expect too much, perhaps still seeing him through the lens of that 'best teenager I've ever seen' Dayle Hadlee quote when he was a 16-year-old kicking around on the 1998-99 New Zealand tour? Does he expect too much, putting too much pressure on himself?

Those slightly intrusive close-ups accompanying a dismissed batsman's trudge off often reveal Bell, more than any other England player, fulminating against his own inadequacy. Of course, it's good not to walk off with a come-day go-day attitude – whistling can get you dropped, after all – but ticking that much, every time, cannot be conducive to maximizing your talent.

It smacks of being too intense, an intensity perhaps borne of an overbearing perfectionism, perhaps of being on the suffocating ECB Elite Player treadmill for so long. As with so many young players of the modern era, this is a person steeped in cricket. To the point of tedium.

(I know a cricketer who once sold Ian Bell a bat. He only had nineteen at the time. Maybe having twenty bats is a sign of covering all bases rather than obsessive perfectionism.)

You do wonder, when Bell shouts at himself after failing to execute a shot, whether he is trying to make each innings a Mona Lisa, each false stroke sparking a desire to slash the canvas and start again.

Even on a technical level, as sublime a touch player as he undoubtedly is – his late cuts and cover drives are as good as there are in the game – there have been weaknesses, ruthlessly exploited by the very best. And these are weaknesses that might be more exposed at three.

For instance, there is a quirk in his trigger movement, where he draws the front foot back and up on to tip-toes. Occasionally he doesn't get back out at the ball and is caught half-forward (an unusual movement shared with Shane Watson, only the latter then thrusts his leg out, often down the wrong line).

This has made Bell a nick-off candidate, staying a little legside of channel balls to unfurl that beautiful offside game (in the same way that Federer might run around his backhand) and, early in his career, he was bowled too frequently for a top player.

A hint of mental frailty was inferred (or perhaps even picked up on) by Shane Warne's 'Shermanator' jibe, and he even admitted he'd been working on his body-language and presence at the crease. However, Bell imposing himself was never going to be about striding out to the middle as though he'd spent the morning carrying carpets. It was going to be about tough runs.

It might seem an odd thing to say of someone with 98 Test caps, with almost a decade in the Test side, but the perception remains that this is a player with all the gifts who should still be doing more. And you suspect, too, that Bell would be the first to agree.

Beyond that, our not-quite-embraced-him relationship with Bell still feels a little nebulous and visceral, perhaps from some dim unconscious disposition. He may be too wee, too ginger, too uncertain of gait and gaze, too scanty of charisma and gleam; a character actor – solid and dependable alongside yer Brad Pitts, yer Johnny Depps, yer Kevin Pietersens.

Perhaps there's something in Bell's demeanour that makes him harder to love. Maybe the man, not the batsman, is too vanilla to stir the passions. Even at Edgbaston, you imagine there's little chance they will honour his career by re-naming one of the ends – Pavilion End or City End – after him (and I'm sure they'd have good reason for that).

The KP quote that started this piece follows up with: 'He is a fantastic player, positive and great to watch.' Agreed? Agreed.

But should English cricket's Peter Pan move up to KP's old spot or to three, where the dreaming boy always wanted to bat, going up two rungs of the ladder and maybe into the very top drawer?

<b>Scott Oliver</b>

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