Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Ian Bell, the late-cut and artistic batting

I was a fan of Ian Bell even before I had ever seen him play Test cricket. Not that I had watched him play enough in County games, but his prodigious talents were much spoken about well before his England debut. It was in one of the Wisden magazines, I think, which was on display at Landmark, where I first read about his potential – a player who relied on touch and finesse more than power and one who supposedly had the talent to become one of the game’s top run-scorers. The description of his batting, I remember vividly, suggested that it was a sight to behold, full of elegant cover drives and delightful flicks.

It was his penchant for the late-cut, though, that did me in. I hadn’t seen him play, of course, but if he could play the late-cut well – which almost all the pieces written about him seemed to suggest – then he had to be mighty good. I’ve had an endless fascination for the stroke, heard romantics purr in delight when merely talking about Gundappa Vishwanath’s execution of it and I myself have derived great pleasure from watching Carl Hooper and Mark Waugh play the stroke, ever so late, with the care of a surgeon and the joie de vivre of an artist. But by the time Bell was ripe enough for his debut, V.V.S. Laxman’s and Damien Martyn’s batting had already captured my imagination. They both made batting look ridiculously simple and played in beautiful, flowing styles, essaying the late-cut with rare polish.

Yet, I waited in anticipation of Bell’s debut. I wanted to see, for myself, what the fuss about his batting was all about. I wanted to see if there was finesse in his late-cut; could he pierce seemingly non-existent gaps through the slips and the gully?

In August 2004, against the West Indies, with Graham Thorpe – another favourite of mine – injured for the fourth test at the Oval, in came Bell, still only twenty-two-years-old. He looked rather innocuous –skin, freckled; hair, ginger; build, light and ostensibly under-confident – surely he was no batting artist? Yet in the middle, bar a testing time against Fidel Edwards, he looked the bit. He was neat and composed in his stance, he had oodles of time to play his shots and he certainly possessed the gift of timing. His propensity to play the ball almost posthumously, at times, was also on display and I revelled in watching the arrival of a new artist – one who could not only play the late-cut, but play it bloody well, with subtlety and elegance.

The real test, I knew, was still to come. His talent was obviously undoubted – he seemed to be endowed with many natural gifts, but his temperament remained to be tested. Indeed, in the years to come, he seemed to make a name for himself as a flat-track bully – one who could pummel inferior attacks with ease and elegance, but who came a cropper in examinations of mental fortitude against the best, viz. Australia. Shane Warne – who gave Bell the moniker Sherminator practically drove him to mental disintegration, tormenting him psychologically, if not purely through cricketing skills.

But under, Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss, Bell has blossomed. Finally, the prettiness in his batting is finding its justification in his run-making. Indeed he didn’t have the greatest of starts under the new management. He was dropped immediately after England’s embarrassing loss at Jamaica in February 2009. He was sent back to play for Warwickshire – to find not merely form, but to build his mental resilience. His response to being dropped, though, was excellent. He made scores of runs in County Cricket and earned a recall to the Eleven for the third Ashes test, but it wasn’t until the decider at the Oval that he displayed the complete extent of his comeback. On a difficult wicket, batting at one-down, he dropped anchor not merely through a display of artistic batsmanship, but by showcasing outstanding resilience and newfound mental toughness.

From there on, it has, almost, been all rosy for Bell. The runs have flowed, whether batting at 3 or 5, and he has found the balance between extravagant stroke-play and necessary watchfulness. A century of the highest class at Durban against Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel in an innings victory for England showed that he had come a full circle. He played the pacers serenely, concentrating hard to settle down before unveiling his rich array of strokes, which no doubt included a few of those fluid late-cuts.

In the tour to Australia last year, he easily looked England’s best batsman; but wasted behind an out-of-form Kevin Pietersen and a declining Paul Collingwood, at number 6, Bell rarely got the opportunity to make a big score. Yet at the SCG in the fifth test, in partnership with Matt Prior, he made a splendid 115 to help England put a cherry on top of their Ashes triumph. It was a century of rare class – one in which he displayed both obstinacy and style.

This summer, he’s already made three test match hundreds. The first two, at Cardiff and Southampton, against Sri Lanka, were both phenomenal in their artistic delight. They were littered with velvety late-cuts – time and again he let the ball go past him before caressing it gently into the third-man boundary.

These knocks, though, came in relatively easy circumstances against a weak Sri Lankan bowling attack. The century against India, however, in the on-going Test at Trent Bridge has not merely been exquisite in its artistry but is a vindication of his advancement as a batsman. With Trott injured, he walked in at number three, survived a tricky phase at the end of day two before stroking the most sublime century today. He not only eased England’s nerves, but also put it in a position of supreme command. His century came off a mere 129 balls and was exhilarating in its imagination. He timed the ball with purity, and his placement was often immaculate to the point of perfection. His innings – and perhaps also the sporting reprieve that he was given, albeit when he had passed his hundred – epitomises so much of what is great about the sport. It was a beautiful reminder that in an age of twenty-twenty cricket, where batsmen choose raw power as their weapon, there is still place for delicacy of touch.

(First posted at: http://www.criticaltwenties.in/sport/of-ian-bell-the-late-cut-and-artistic-batting)

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