Ian Bell: The new Daryll Cullinan

In 1935, sports writer Grantland Rice famously coined Gene Sarazen’s albatross on the 15th hole on his way to winning the Masters as “the shot that was heard around the world”. In 2012 against India at Ahmedabad, walking out with his team 69-4, Ian Bell played a shot that was also probably heard around the world – as much because it’s sheer ineptitude caused 10 million England fans to cry out in anguish at the same time.

Andy Bull on the Guardian’s OBO commentary probably described it best: “I cannot believe this. I mean really, really, that may be the single most idiotic, pathetic, embarrassing, humiliating, disgraceful, desultory, excruciatingly awful dismissal I have seen from an English batsman in five years of writing over-by-over cricket coverage.”

I actually feel some degree of sympathy of Bell, his dismissal was that of a man who knows he has a problem and is trying to overcompensate for it by doing something out of his comfort zone in an attempt to display a sense of authority and control, Also, having spent last Winter trying and failing to establish some credentials against the spin of Ajmal, Rehman and Herath, firstly by getting on the front foot and attacking selectively and secondly through staying on the back foot and defending, what other option did he have left?

His dismissal was that of a man whose ordinary gameplan is frazzled, as is his brain. He thought to be aggressive, overly so, dancing down the pitch and trying to hit over the top has long been his release shot against the spinners, but this was too much – a disaster of his own making. It was the shot of a desperate man, and desperate men don’t generally do well as Test batsmen.

His travails against high class spin have now reached a point, arguably where you wonder whether he can ever get it right. His early problems picking Shane Warne become famous, and much-talked about, but then having established a reputation as an attacking player of ”orthodox’ spin or Bangladeshi one’s, came the trauma of last Winter. He has the game, but you can’t help but wonder if he’ll ever get it right against spinners who he can’t pick.

These problems against spin are now so pronounced that they look eerily similar to those of another high class batsman who struggled against a high class spinner – Daryll Cullinan. Cullinan has almost become the prime example of a player who cannot cope, ‘a bunny’ as he was famously called against Shane Warne.

Cullinan, like Bell, was a stylish batsman who was capable of thriving against spin or seam, averaging 44 across his Test career, yet whose famous struggles against Shane Warne became so bad that they dogged him for his entire career – as he was technically equipped to cope but psychologically continually caught in the trap Warne laid for him, no matter what he tried. He admitted, after he retired: “Warne was too good for me. I, only caught on towards the end that I did not do the simplest of things well – and that is watch the ball out the hand. But by then it was too late.”

From one bunny to another the message is do the simple things well before it is too late, and its a message that Ian Bell should remember the next time he takes his guard against a spinner he can’t pick because after today he cannot afford a repeat. Because if he can’t change this record or his own gameplan, his career could well end up looking like this generation’s “bunny”, the English Cullinan. A successful one in some respects, but one where the nature of it’s failure threatens to overshadow it all.

Advertisements

Ian Bell: England’s man for all forms of the game

It’s one of the oldest phrases in the book, but what the hell: “Like a fine wine, Ian Bell seems to get better with age.”

At the moment England can’t get enough of Ian Bell, Ashes centurion, slayer of the Australians, now nicknamed “The Terminator” by Shane Warne and recent match-winner of their latest tour game against the Prime Ministers.

Certainly this is a far cry from the hellish experience he suffered four years ago in Australia where one felt he was surely being pushed to within one step of a breakdown such was his torment at the hands of a mighty fine Australian outfit.

Yet that was a different Ian Bell, certainly compared with the authorative, commanding batsman who now regularly accepts centre stage for England though who is rarely afforded it.

Indeed after two years of middling success and a constant barrage of criticism over a whole range of things such as his inability to score a ODI hundred, his inability to score a Test century on his own, and his ability to find such weird ways to get himself out when well set, perhaps now the time finally has come to accept Ian Bell for what he has finally become.

Because he is now probably England’s best batsmen, perhaps in any form of the game. Sure Kevin Pietersen has the extravagance and ability to dominate even the best bowlers, but his double century not withstanding he has still to regularly hit big scores consistently to match up to his talent.

Cook and Trott may have the numbers-Cook the most runs recently, Trott the highest average-but neither particularly dominates. They both set themselves up, to nudge and to nurdle-more to infuriate a bowler than to cow them. Strauss is now more of a dasher-a more dominating and better batsman but not quite as effective a run scorer as in his early days in Test cricket.

All the while there is Bell who in a sense fits the bill of all.

Certainly style is not a problem, as he has a game the purists dream of. His cover drive is nigh on glorious, all high elbow and a lovely fluid movement of the bat while he also sweeps like the best of them.  He now dominates bowlers, not in a Jacques Kallis powerful kind of way, but more through cashing in on poorer balls, threading eye of the needle drives around the park and forever looking to move his feet to come down the track to spinners as if his name were Sachin and he came from India.

Yet he has coupled this with a stick ability that makes him respected. Lest we forget that it was Bell who kept Collingwood company for much of his rearguard action in South Africa, that it was he who played lone hands to keep England competitive when they were down in Perth and in Brisbane.

The question now for him is what next. Exciting times these are for England’s Test number six. One would venture a place at number five in the World Cup will beckon, though don’t be too surprised if a move to open comes about if Davies fails to hit his straps.

He has played that role with moderate success before but he is more than capable of playing it better now as he keeps the scoreboard ticking, can clear the boundary if needed and plays both seam and spin well-something which neither Davies or Kieswetter can state confidently.

Then there is the Twenty20 team. Bell hasn’t been part of that for a long time, but stated after his ton for the tourists against the Prime Ministers XI that he fancied a bit of T20 for England. So here’s a mad idea-make him captain once Collingwood eventually retires and slowly but surely integrate him into the team.

His batting easily surpasses Collingwood, he has captaincy experience with Warwickshire and appears to thrive on it, and his ground fielding-though not Collingwood-esque-is still probably amongst the best in the world-a vital part of T20 cricket.

In Test matches, he’ll almost certainly take on the number five position-as a key pivot in this England team-and may ultimately end up back at number three where he so wants to be in a couple of years.

One wouldn’t doubt him to do it, because after years of struggle things finally look like their paying off for Ian Bell, who now surely must be England’s man for all forms of the game.

One Day selections show England’s eyes are firmly fixed on the World Cup

Showing that they are not contented with simply leaving the T20 World Cup victory in the West Indies as a one-off, England’s selectors and management are showing the kind of strategy aimed at mounting a sustained charge for the 50 over trophy, even though the event is months away.

One of the features of their recent success was the acknowledgement that square pegs in round holes do not work, so gone were the likes of Michael Vaughan and Alistair Cook opening an inningss, as dashers like Craig Kieswetter and Michael Lumb were picked.

Now England’s 50 over’s squad selection shows that they have learnt from those lessons and built a squad of players well-suited to limited overs cricket, and capable of thriving in the kind of conditions they will encounter in India at the World Cup.

So Craig Kieswetter, the man who provides the dash at the top of the order is picked, little surprise given the recent limited overs form of Matt Prior.

While some may have speculated whether Michael Lumb would also have been picked, Kieswetter-who will also keep wicket-is a far better batsmen, has already racked up a sub-continent ODI hundred and is a far more adept player of spin-which will be vital in India.

An ability to thrive against the spinners may also have played a part in Ian Bell’s inclusion, having been omitted from all international short-form cricket since November 2008.

Such an omission was surprising, especially given that Bell would generally be ranked as one of England’s better one day international batsmen, but perhaps indicative of the travails which had begun to afflict his game after three years of international cricket.

But while the likes of Owais Shah and Ravi Bopara took his place to mixed results, Bell has steadily been improving in county cricket.

Few would argue that he has returned a better player, as a Test match average of 71 in 2010, and the memories of the responsibility of his knocks in South Africa and Bangladesh attest to. Plus given that he remains England’s best player of spin bowling, such a return should be welcomed.

There is also the return of Michael Yardy, whose no frills brand of slow bowling worked well in tandem with the guile of Graeme Swann.

Whether Yardy can thrive in the longer form of One Day International Cricket remains to be seen, but his selection shows that England are aware of the types of conditions likely to be facing them in India, and hope to integrate him into their plans.

Though he may not be as big a spinner of the ball as the likes of Adil Rashid, Monty Panesar and James Tredwell, he is a multi-dimensional cricketer with bags of experience, and ought not to be overawed should he and his team struggle.

The other main talking point of the squad was the presence of Andrew Strauss. Such talk of omitting him from the ODI captain was short-sighted.

While his average, and style may not make him an ideal candidate to open the innings, Strauss’s game has evolved to the stage where he is capable of making a run-a-ball innings, and drop anchor while others around him take risks.

Meanwhile his status as England ODI captain remains unchallenged, further justifying his selection.

While some have argued that Paul Collingwood deserves the role, judging by his haste to relinquish the role two years ago it is not a position he particularly craves.

Indeed some would argue he was able to thrive as T20 in the Caribbean in the knowledge that Strauss was viewed as England’s overall captain, liberating him from some of the burdens which he has previously encountered.

Overall the selections hint at a permanence and desire to build a core group of players who will be in India in 2011.

While there is still time for the likes of Rashid, Flintoff and perhaps even Finn or Shahzad to stack their claim for inclusion in the World Cup, England appears to be building steadily towards a competition.

After years of short-term chopping and changing searching for success, England have learned that playing the long game can be the best way to win in Cricket’s shortest form.