Ian Bell Poised for Fairy-Tale Return?September 11, 2016
John Ashdown, in The Guardian 31 August 2016, with the title “
The Warwickshire batsman’s possible England comeback for the tours to Bangladesh and India has divided opinion, but history shows returnees can rediscover their magic touch. England’s middle-order problems have opened the door for Ian Bell’s possible return to the England side at the age of 34. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images
Glue or fairweather friend? What is it about Ian Bell? In his own quiet way he has been almost as polarising a figure as Kevin Pietersen over the past decade or so.. For some he was the ultimate cult hero, the most aesthetically pleasing cog in the England machine, the often-overlooked glue that bound the flashier elements together. For others, he was a flake, a fairweather friend, a frustration. And each camp’s existence helped entrench the other.
The fiery debates appeared to have ended for good last November when Bell was left out of the squad for South Africa, after 118 Tests. But the travails of England’s middle-order this summer breathed life into the embers and the revelation last week that the 34-year-old has been sounded out about a return for the tours of Bangladesh and India brought the flames roaring back, though this time the arguments surround not whether he should keep his place but whether he should be getting it back.
Even former England captains struggle to agree over Bell. At the start of the summer Michael Atherton was in the minority when making the case for Bell’s return in the middle order, quoting the stellar records of Kumar Sangakkara, Graham Gooch and Jacques Kallis after turning 34. Last week Nasser Hussain described the potential selection of Bell as “a backward step”, adding: “I would like to look to the future, especially with the tour of Bangladesh. I don’t see the mileage of taking Bell, albeit a fantastic player.”
And isn’t it typical of the man that the pontificating over his unexceptional County Championship season – 565 runs at 37.66 (34 batsmen have scored more Division One runs than him this season) – had barely finished when he produceda superb unbeaten 94 in Warwickshire’s Royal London One Day Cup win over Somerset in Monday’s semi-final.
Other statistics don’t really help bring clarity either. His record on the subcontinent may be excellent – he averages 44.09 in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan combined – but his record in India alone, where England are likely to need runs the most, is not much to write home about – 352 runs at 27.07. And just to further muddy the waters, he has signed up to join Perth Scorchers for the Big Bash. The final Test of the India series begins on 16 December, the Scorchers’ first fixture is against Adelaide Strikers on 23 December.
Just as you have had to do throughout his career – through no fault of his own – you simply have to pick a side with the Sledgehammer of Eternal Justice. But whether you sign up to the idea that his form is temporary, his class permanent, or would prefer simply to move on with new names and faces, perhaps there’s one thing we can all agree on.
Everybody loves a comeback tale. And English cricket history is littered with returnees who made an impact. Take Ian Botham in 1991. After two years out of the Test team, the all-rounder returned to face West Indies one last time. It was,as Rob Smyth put it in this excellent Spin from 2012: “Both v Viv, one last time: Botham’s comeback and Viv Richards’s farewell.” And despite struggling to recapture the old magic with bat and ball, Botham managed to make an indelible mark: his dismissal in the first innings, when he tumbled into his stumps, prompted Brian Johnson’s unforgettable “leg over” moment on TMS, he became the first England player to wear sunglasses in a Test, and he even strolled out to smack the winning runs on the final day.
Fifteen years earlier there had been Brian Close. Again the West Indies were in town when England asked the 45-year-old Close to return, nine years after his previous Test. Promoted to open the batting at Old Trafford against the fearsome attack of Michael Holding, Andy Roberts and Wayne Daniel, on the evening of the third day Close and John Edrich stood up to one of the more terrifying spells in Test history. Watching the footage now, you can still hear the thunk of leather on barrel chest.
Geoff Boycott’s first Test back in the fold after his self-imposed three-year exile was no less notable. For the third Ashes Test at Trent Bridge in 1977 he returned and produced what he rates as his best Test innings, though for many it is more memorable for his run out of the Nottinghamshire favourite Derek Randall.
Graham Thorpe deserves a place on the list too for his century against South Africa at The Oval in 2003 (a complex story told brilliantly by Donald McRae and Thorpe himself in an interview at the time). A partnership of 268 with Marcus Trescothick, after South Africa had made 484, was pivotal in taking England to victory in the Test and with it the series.
There are plenty of others scattered through the years. This is not to say that all comebacks are imbued with a fairytale quality – the struggles of England’s latest returnee, Nick Compton, are testament to that – but that magic exists in potentia. With Bell there is no need for England to leave the memories alone when there is still the chance to make new ones.
Breaking America falls short: One of the briefest, strangest series in recent memory ended on Sunday with a no result. Newcomers to the game – presumably the target audience – will have been beguiled and bemused in equal measure by West Indies and India’s jaunt to the USA for a two-game T20 series the Windies won 1-0.
The scoreline does not tell the full story. In the first game in Lauderhill, Florida, West Indies spanked 245 from their 20 overs. India chased brilliantly and were 238 for three from 19 overs. Eight runs required, seven wickets in hand, six balls remaining – no bother. Dwayne Bravo sent down a brilliant final over, leaving India with two to win from the last ball and MS Dhoni on strike. And the India captain duly holed out to third man.
That game of high drama and 489 runs in the space of 40 overs was then followed by a farce the next day. After a 40-minute delay because of technical issues for the broadcasters, West Indies were bowled out for 143. Then two overs into India’s chase a 20-minute shower was enough to cause the abandonment of the match, the ground having inadequate drainage and lacking (perfectly understandable) the very latest gizmos and gadgets in grass-drying technology.
“I’ve played close to 10 years of international cricket and frankly I’ve played under worse conditions,” said Dhoni. Another sputtering step for international cricket’s perennially faltering attempt to break America.