If they still held Christmas Day fancy dress parties for the MCC’s touring cricketers, for the first time in eleven years, Ian Bell would not be digging out his Sherminator outfit and wondering how long Shane Warne’s jibe would follow him around. Metaphorically speaking, he’s now shaking his head, his face reddening with anger under his strawberry blonde hair after dismissal not from the crease this time, but from Team England. A recall seems almost as unlikely as it did after his dozy run out at Trent Bridge in 2011, so unless MS Dhoni replaces James Whitaker as England’s Chairman of Selectors, Bell will bat as a Bear from now on.
So where does he sit amongst his contemporaries? I’ve always found that question a tricky one to answer – aside from 2013, when his feats made “Bell’s Ashes” a perfectly reasonable moniker for that strange series. So I’ve gone to the numbers and they reveal some interesting comparisons – or non-comparisons.
Over the span of Bell’s career, only four men scored more runs in Test cricket than his 7,727. That number alone represents a remarkable feat, a testament to his fitness and a rebuttal to those who claim he was flaky more often than fluent – he irrefutably churned out runs alongside those picture-book cover drives and late cuts.
Those who scored more then Bell comprise one all-time great batsman (Kumar Sangakkara), one on the way to all-time greatness (Alastair Cook) and two who might be a mere notch below that exalted plane (Michael Clarke and Kevin Pietersen). But if you had a spare case of Malbec and invited a few friends round to pick the best Test XI of the first 15 years of this century, those four names would crop up before the first glass was drained (as would the next four on the list, AB de Villiers, Younis Khan, Jacques Kallis and Ricky Ponting). What about Belly? Well, one might need something more potent and less legal than a very decent red before his cause would be argued.
Nevertheless, aggregate runs are but one metric to assess a batsman’s career (and, for what it’s worth, the most important in my book) – but what about his average? Here we find the kind of company one might expect Bell to be keeping in that wine-fueled discussion.
His handy, but hardly heroic 42.69, leaves him well short of the class of the field (the wide bats of Sanga, Younis, Shiv Chanderpaul and Kallis all average above 56), with Bell firmly positioned in mid-table – 39th of those with 2000 Test runs. He’s in and around likes of Jonathan Trott (44.08) and Paul Collingwood (41.28) – batsmen who were capable of excellent innings, an occasional outstanding series, but whose gifts lie in other aspects of batting (concentration and bloody-mindedness in their cases) than in the hard currency of runs.
So where can we find Bell’s peer buried, maybe obscured, somewhere in cricket’s oceanic volume of statistics? Well I’m going for a man who did not score anywhere near Bell’s thousands of Test runs (he didn’t play enough matches, though he might have done for any other side in history), but whose average is just 2.33 runs above the Warwickshire man’s. He also scored his runs in great style, but could find ways of getting out that exasperated fans (and, in his case, selectors). And, if it’s not too pseudish a comment to make, as with Bell on a good day, when he left the crease it felt like a fresco painter’s artistry had gone to be replaced by a plasterer’s bish-bash-bosh.
Ian Bell was England’s Damien Martyn.