The weight of being Ian Bell finally takes its toll

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As Ian Bell retires from first-class cricket, let’s talk about a player whose Test record was plenty good enough but whose technique honestly left us kind of cold.

Ian Bell was player of the series in a 3-0 Ashes win. Can we just state that first before we get into anything else? It seems like for most players that would be a pretty significant thing, but with Bell what should really be a career-defining fact for some reason gets rather lost.

The two main themes of Bell retirement reportage have been (1) pretty good, but could have been even better and (2) ooh, that cover drive.

The first of those was his eternal curse; the notion that no matter how well he played, there was somehow another level he could attain. People largely thought this because of the second part.

As we’ve written before, “class” is for the most part a nebulous, meaningless thing that invisibly bolsters some batsmen’s first-class averages in the eyes of selectors and fans. It is not generally directly related to whether or not a player is actually any good at batting or not.

The story of Ian Bell’s career is of someone battling to overcome a widespread tendency to measure him against cruelly lofty expectations.

Ian Bell suffered from people forever thinking he *should* be better. Even after 22 Test hundreds and with an average of 42.69, people think it should have been 30 hundreds and an average of 50.

It’s largely forgotten now, but this shortfall between what he was actually doing and what people for some reason thought he could do led many people to actively hate him.

26 years old, averaging 40 in Test cricket, and a lot of England fans loathed him.

Others adored him – quite often because his batting was smoother than Tetley’s Smoothflow.

Much like Tetley’s Smoothlow, we always found him a bit nondescript. We don’t really see what’s of interest in ‘textbook’ batting. It’s the weird batsmen who’ve come up with their own method who tend to catch our eye.

For quite a long time this website was unique in being entirely non-committal about Bell. We even ran a campaign, the theme of which was to have no firm opinion about him one way or the other.

We invited people to try and feel more numb. “Imagine you’re arriving at work on a Tuesday morning and looking into the faces of your colleagues,” we suggested.

AP Webster even did us some propaganda.

Our firmly-held position couldn’t last.

In 2010, Bell defended England to an unlikely draw against South Africa and we called him “an actual hero” before somewhat bizarrely likening him to a wooden spoon.

In 2011, he played far, far too well and found himself named Lord Megachief of Gold.

Then things went REALLY tits up in 2013 when he sherminated Australia with England winning all three Tests in which he scored a hundred.

But this is not what people will remember. What people will remember first and foremost will surely be his eternal and irrepressible Ian Bell-ness.

A case in point: in his final summer of Test cricket, with no fewer than 199 Test innings to his name, people were still suggesting that a move up the order might be the making of him.

Ian Bell.

16 comments

  1. His last ever First Class innings is in progress as we speak. Watching it on Glamorgan’s YouTube page, two-year-old daughter asleep on my face.

    Sums it all up, really.

  2. When you put it into context, Ian Bell was very good.
    How England could do with another middle order batsmen averages over 40. Although, I’m sure Pope will one day.

  3. Do you think Ian Bell would be a good commentator?
    He would certainly be better than Micheal Vaughn at any rate.

  4. You know you had that England XI of players you liked and wanted to do well, Bell was that for me and I’ve no idea why.

    It was probably a combination of That-Cover-Drive and thinking he could and might do a bit better one day.

    I remember his column The Guardian which was the dullest thing I’ve ever read and that he felt he should bat at 3 for England

  5. If only there was a phrase to encapsulate his era, his period in time as it were. Something that might bring to mind a time of peace and happiness, style and culture, as for example that period of the French Third Republic between the end of the Paris Commune and the start of the First World War. Something that as well as being resonant of that celebrated time was also something of a pun on his name, the kind of pun that would make whoever thought of it use it time and time again, especially when the first time it was used it was ignored by everyone, requiring it to be brought out again several years later. And then again today.

    1. Daisy tends to refer to the era in question as “the belly pork”, which is also one of her favourite cuts of meat.

      Ian Bell? He was good.

  6. Probably an unfair (and unpopular) characterisation, but I always thought he was a bit of a fair weather player.

  7. The comments on that article about England fans loathing him remind me of what a different time it was 12 years ago. The fact that Ged felt Owais Shah should have been playing in his stead for one thing shows how long ago it was!

  8. King Cricket seems to have managed to hang onto the old hate Bell gang that used to roam the old BBC comment board. Not moving on is a sad really. Here we have the proud philistinism, the Laddishness but no longer Lads. The boasting of smirking and indifference and a few attempts at very very old jokes that never seemed to get old – like Bell End still doing the rounds but now lost amongst a sea of complimentary fans.

    For there is no doubt the tide has turned and Bell and his style of batting are in favour leaving the Bell naysayers washed up on Troll Beach. Targeting Bell was once cool. But it gave licence to load onto one player all the mean things which pass as subjectivity. And why not? Cricket had been free of contempt, scorn, belittlement, for too long. The new keyboard warriors would mark a new era which would espouse a kind of Bad Boy image. How could nice-as-pie Bell ever hope to enter that club despite his record?

    Well he didn’t wither in the storm. And remained true to himself, batting at the end as he had begun, an artist, refusing to bend to the Book of Biffing Hits. You missed the decade’s turn back to what was missing. And fans could judge for themselves. Video clips replacing old slurs. Here was a great batsman not just measured by his impressive stats, but by something much more rare, bringing alive the historic artistry of the game, the classical batting shots in dazzling array when in play against bowlers. It’s the combination of the two which is unique. Art and sport. You have never understood. He didn’t need to strut. His timing speaks for him. His grace and posture the same. He’s not one of the Lads. He’s a poet.

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