My fractured relationship with Ian Bell

Ian Bell

Ian Bell in 2004

Ian Bell and I have had a chequered relationship. I’ve never met him, you understand. But over the past decade, as the little Warks batsman has inveigled his way into the England team, my feelings for him have grown incredibly conflicted. On the one hand, I love him for the beauty of his stroke-play, the finesse of his technique. On the other, I genuinely believe he’s given me a stomach ulcer with the anger he engenders when he crumbles under pressure, when he scoops an easy catch to the man somewhere around mid-on, when he begins his walk back to the pavilion with a little grimace on his face and miming the shot he intended to play rather than the ill-timed hook to third man that he executed. When it’s time for him to be the fine international-class batsman he can be, he panics and hides and is invariably out next ball. No finer examplar of this phenomenon can there be than my friend’s comment on hearing I was writing an article about Ian Bell: “Does it start off really well and then sort of stop long before it should?”

Another friend reminded me that Bell’s problem cannot be cowardice – “He fields at short leg!” Yet I’ve always felt that the mouselike Bell fields in close – and, it must be said, fields very well – because the big boys made him do it. He’s cowed into submission. He does it because he has to, and excellence at short leg prevents him from getting hurt. Or messing up those strawberry-blond highlights.

Which makes it a bit ironic that he was further out at square when he injured himself fielding against Bangladesh. He leapt for a catch, which sailed over his head and would have done even if he’d been six inches taller, and as he landed back on the turf, he turned his ankle, with his full weight on the outside of his left foot. He looked startled, and, evidently in pain, he tried to play on by using just one leg to stand on.

Meanwhile, I watched these events unfold, and unforgivingly and unforgiveably hard-hearted fiend that I am, my sympathy was in short supply. I turn my ankles over on a regular basis, you see, and if you’ve got a sprain or a twist, yes, it’s painful, but you sit down for a bit, elevate it, whack some ice on it, strap it up and it’s workable.

Of course, Bell left the field to seek medical treatment (eventually), and news began to filter through that he’d fractured the fifth metatarsal in his left foot. I threw my hands in the air with exasperation. Only Ian Bell could break his foot in such an innocuous way. As England took to the crease for their innings, there was a big Bell-shaped hole in the batting line-up and I darkly muttered all sorts of curses against the afflicted. As they crumbled, I blamed them, obviously, but I also blamed Bell for being the sole cricketer on the face of the planet who could incur such a freak injury when anyone else would just make do with a twisted ankle. When James Anderson fell – the ninth England wicket – the Bangladesh team whipped off the bails and began dancing with delight at their victory, because they firmly believed there was no way Ian Bell, the only man who hadn’t batted, would be able to take his place at the crease.

And yet they and I were wrong. Strapped up with his leg in a big square protective cast, Bell padded up and marched as best he could into the arena. With his runner Eoin Morgan at his side, they looked like brave young brother warriors clad only in pyjamas and pads. Except one of the warriors had only one functional foot.

And I was overwhelmed with a strange feeling. For the first time, my primary emotion on looking at Ian Bell was not frustration, nor irritation, nor anger, nor confusion, but respect. To go out and be prepared to bat in those circumstances took guts – a quality I’ve never before recognised in him. It was a pleasing surprise. Ian Bell, I have misjudged you, and I apologise. But dear boy, it’s partly your fault as well. This is the kind of dedicated bravery and sheer commitment that you need to demonstrate all the time. It’s wonderful to see it on the field for a change. I just wish – as I’m sure you do – it hadn’t taken a broken foot for it to happen.

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9 Responses to My fractured relationship with Ian Bell

  1. Pingback: Monday Myriad: No soccer withdrawal here

  2. Jackie says:

    Calling Ian Bell “little” warns you that this article is not all it seems. At 5ft 10 Bell is average height. But Carrie runs through all the usual false impressions of Bell under cover of pretending she is a fan. She seems ignorant of the fact for example that Bell is a world class fielder, or hopes the casual reader is. He fields at short leg because he has excellent reflexes but he has made outstanding catches in many other positions. Bell is very similar to Ponting and Collingwood in that he will leap for a catch, which is what caused the awkward landing.

    Her article is strewn with negative adjectives that are in no way justified. “Mouselike” for example. In what respect? Bell has always been a boundary hitter who has learnt recently the value of accumulation. Bell is vulnerable when he first comes in, but once into double figures he moves quickly onto 50s. If Bell had a fault it was to attack the ball too much, the ill-timed hook that she mentions, but this is hardly the stroke of a mouselike player! Bell might be called extravagant at such moments but it is to his credit that he hasn’t curbed his stroke play but tried to master it and extend it. This isn’t the mindset of a so-called cowardly player.

    A perfect example of this is the late cut which caused his downfall at Sabina Park and his dropping from the side. Many batsmen would try to avoid this stroke thereafter. Instead Bell has now used it to good effect against South Africa and Bangladesh on two occasions to win games.

    The trouble is Carrie that your perception of Bell is based on prejudice and spite which you only thinly disguise. You talk about Bell crumbling under pressure as though he didn’t recently come in at the Oval at 12-1 in an Ashes decider (with all the media baying for his blood) and get a top score of 72. The same Bell got a big century of 140 against South Africa (you know Steyn does bowl quickly!) two Tests later after going cheaply at Centurion. Then next Test at Cape Town he batted all day with Collingwood to save the game (Steyn and Morkel again!) and got 78.

    Since then he has rescued England twice from slipping up on the banana-skin of Bangladesh with two outstanding centuries. Yet apparently he has only earned your respect by coming in to bat with a broken foot.

    Strange then that Bell’s bravery following a near-injury in New Zealand passed you by! Bell, fielding at short-leg, was knocked to the ground by a severe blow to his wrist. X-ray revealed no broken bones so Bell returned to the game with his hand in an ice bucket every half an hour. Not only did he bat and get some runs but in the second innings he was back at short leg again. Botham was horrified. “Get that man out of there.” But Belly asked to be put there – not cowed into it as you so sweetly suggested – just as Strauss admitted that Bell was keen to bat with his broken foot if needed.

    This whole article is an outrage of smiling assassination. The trouble is it is old hat and done to death by Bell bashers over the years. They were wrong. You were wrong. The Bell you invented never existed. The Bell you invented could never have fought his way back into the side with the determination and tenacity Bell has shown.

    You were right about one thing. He is our most graceful player. Something about that seems to excite envy or distrust. As though beauty can’t be complemented by anything except a weak interior to make up for its existence. It seems that it is too much for a player to be beautiful and tough. So to even things up you will have to cut Bell down to size, to under-praise his skill and accomplishments, to ignore his stats, and to find fault.

    Your sarcasm is cheaply written about a fine cricketer who doesn’t need to demonstrate anything more than the top performances for England since returning to the side. The point is Carrie he doesn’t need to prove it to you when the rest of the world can see for themselves.

  3. carrie says:

    Ah, Jackie. I don’t think you could have missed the point more if you’d tried. You touch on the entire point of the article with your final comment. It’s tongue-in-cheek. The assassination isn’t on Bell as he is, but on my own bias and prejudices. I’m sorry that you appear to have overlooked that.

  4. Jackie says:

    Old habits obviously die hard Carrie. The “dear boy” gives it away.

  5. carrie says:

    I genuinely didn’t mean that as sarcastic! Maybe I should employ sarcasm quotes in future.

  6. Jackie says:

    Your sarcasm seems genuine enough to me. Articles like this tell us nothing about Ian Bell but a great deal about their author. Let us say that the man you want to rescue from your stereotyping actually doesn’t exist “he panics and hides and invariably he is out next ball”. It makes me believe you haven’t actually seen him bat. This isn’t even close. He may get lapses in concentration but his class at the crease is unmistakable. At 28 he’s at the same stage as many good and great cricketers before him. But talent attracts envy like a magnet.

  7. Carrie says:

    Jackie, your sentence about it saying nothing about Bell but everything about me is entirely the point of the piece. Bell hasn’t done anything differently. It’s ME. It’s my perception of him. I exaggerated his qualities good and bad for my own ends. Which is what biased people do. I don’t know him; I’ve never spoken to him; I’ve just seen him bat on scores of occasions. And every single time I interpret his performance based on my own prejudices. That’s what the piece is about. I’m sorry that you didn’t see it that way.

  8. Jackie says:

    The trouble is, Carrie, your prejudices shine through too strongly. As a writer you must know that tone is all.

    Similar mocking pieces are appearing from those aware that Bell received a standing ovation at the ground, so an adjustment is being made to the so-called perceived image of Bell, with a few old lies thrown in.

    Picking on someone is a practice as old as the hills and it is known as bullying. The sporting media have taken on this mantle for reasons I will leave to sociologists but sportsmen are now regularly debunked and derided and given the treatment once reserved by the gutter press for lesser celebrities. The rise of sportsmen as stars may have something to do with this.

    You have only to look at the England football team to see the pernicious effects of this and the fear of failure it engenders. Ritual humiliation from the media awaits them.

    Cricket is awash with blogs, comment boards, from those only willing to join in. Scorn seems to be preferred to debate. Misanthropic sports writers like Mike Selvey of the Guardian and Derek Pringle of the Telegraph (both of them ex-bowlers) led the field in attacks on Bell, some of it in the guise of promoting players from their ex-Counties, and some of it just because they like targeting someone. Selvey was a notorious critic of Nasser Hussain. The Guardian’s trio of Selvey, Hopps and Marks specialise in abuse. Among their recent victims have been Bell, Vaughan, Harmison, and Panesar. I’m not talking about fair criticism, or even criticism, but abuse, stuff churned out to sneer, deride and denigrate. Given that most sportsmen can’t fight back (but Harmison did) this is easy pickings.

    The media always work in a pack. But just occasionally one breaks ranks and it is to his credit that Steve James of the Telegraph was impressed by Bell’s 72 at the Oval and decided to speak out on his behalf. When Bell battled to save the game at Cape Town, he memorably said that Bell had the kind of grit we needed on the roads (it was winter).

    The Bell baiting reached its apotheosis in an article by Michael Henderson (who had been mocking Bell regularly) of the Telegraph who has a literary bent. After the first day of the Ashes decider at the Oval he painted a picture of Bell as J. Alfred Prufrock of the Eliot poem, a nowhere man. Bell had top scored 72.

    “Let us go then, you and I, when the innings is spread out against the sky, like a batsman etherised upon a table. The batsman being in this case Ian Bell, lying on a table somewhere in the England dressing-room which last night offered a refuge for the Warwickshire player as he reflected on his latest failure in Test cricket….”

    Bell was actually on TV being quoted that the pitch was unusually dry and difficult and runs on the board were important. He predicted 350 would be a good total.

    Henderson went on:

    “Some might claim it was a success….but failure it was, by England’s very own Prufrock; another failure. In 49 Tests he still has to make the first century of any innings, the one from which all else follows, the ones that No 3s are selected to provide. It is a fact that damns him, for the rosy faced cherub has talent. Sadly, for him and also for us, he lacks the other things – drive, determination, serenity, guts, balls, choose your noun – which enable that talent to blossom…”

    He ends with Bell “sitting alone moping with this thoughts, hoping, scheming, dreaming, till human voices wake us, and we drown.”

    There you have it, the prejudice, bias, call it what you will, in full flight, so keen was he in denigrating Bell that he hadn’t read the match correctly or anywhere near. What a fool he must have felt when Australia was bowled for 160, barely twice the runs that Bell had scored on his own. As Ponting remarked: “Only Bell read the pitch right.”

    Those “human voices” have subsided since Bell’s drive and determination to get back into the side have been only too evident. Bell’s real guts is to ignore ridicule like that without being undermined. Other players might have wilted under such contempt so eagerly copied.

    I’ve written at length to show the context of your article. Marcus Trescothick was also derided in his day for his “concrete feet”. Unhappily it had more severe consequences. Ashley Giles and Paul Collingwood have both confessed to depression following public humiliation in the media.

  9. Carrie says:

    Jackie, I’m not going to engage with you any more. Thanks for reading.