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.