Naked in a birdcage.
Cardboard cut out.
Sledgehammer of eternal justice.
Back in 1997, Andy Flower smiled. No one else was there. He was alone in his room after a match-drawing innings against Matabeleland. It was just him, some pieces of paper and an oil lamp. The paper was scorecards from Tests and first-class matches the world over. Andy had spent a lifetime collecting them, he had file cabinets built to accommodate them. Trusted colleagues would send them to him. When he was not fastidiously combing over VHS tapes of his technique or being fitter than a sheep dog, Flower was looking for something in all these numbers – he didn’t know what it was, but he knew it would give him an edge over someone else, and that is he wanted.
The smile came from an epiphany Flower had. Early wickets truly were the key.
The evidence was obvious. By keeping your top order out there for as along as possible, you made bowlers go into fourth, fifth and sixth spells. That would mean when the middle order came in, they could capitalise on a tired attack, a deflated field and scoreboard pressure. All that blood sweat and paperwork was worth it.
It is almost possible that the above is made up, and it was actually years of playing professional cricket around the world that taught Andy Flower valuable lessons that he formulated into team plans and regulations. At their best, the England team executed these plans in a brilliantly unthinking way. Alastair Cook refused to sweat or play a poor shot. Andrew Strauss stayed calm and did his job. Jonathan Trott refused to blink or attack. England won quite a bit of cricket.
There were other factors, players and tactics that they used, but it was their foundation. When it fails, they do too. The two most recent series England have lost were against South Africa and Pakistan and in both instances the top three averaged less than 30. That trend goes back to 2008 against South Africa, which was before Flower was coach. The last time England’s top three averaged below 30 and they won a Test series was against Sri Lanka in 2001. When Flower was still a Zimbabwe batsman.
It was always important always – no one ever says, let’s throw wickets away at the top so our middle order can save us. But England built a gameplan around it. And not just a gameplan, but an Andy Flower gameplan; it might as well be typed on gold paper and laminated.
This series England are averaging 29.21 for their top three. Yet, they are 2-0 up. So far, in order of occurrence, they’ve been 102 for 3, 121 for 3, 28 for 3, 30 for 3, 64 for 3, 27 for 3 and 149 for 3. It’s no 517 for 1. At the start of their second innings here, they were 49 for 3, which was 17 for 3 in the state of the game. Australia were on top. Ryan Harris looked like an immense Anime monster, Peter Siddle had not even come on yet. Yet by the close of play England had travelled comfortably to a 202-run lead.
Australia’s bowling attack is pretty good. They have five decent options and a part-time wristspinner. Their bowlers can hit the right lengths for long periods, they can build pressure, their lines have been very good and their captain can, on occasion, be very forward thinking. Against a top order not in perfect mechanical order, they’ve been good.
Cook has helped Australia, like he has helped many sides since the headier days of 2011. Back then it looked as if the only way to get Cook out was to send 200,000 protesters to Leicester Square and start a social media campaign. Now you just wait for him to play a bad shot. This year he is averaging 36. He has made no hundreds this series.
The praise that Joe Root gets at times suggest he is the Candyman, Johnny Cash and Jesus Christ rolled into one. Yet his back-foot technique is getting a working over by the Australians, who try not to let him use it. Root’s 180 at Lord’s was so good you hoped he didn’t have a flaw but if Australia had a fully functioning cordon and he had been caught on 8, he’d be averaging 12 in this series.
Something weird has happened to Trott of late. The Trott of legend, and Twitter infamy, was the much-scratching, overly defensive player. Now he’s been replaced by someone Steve McQueen could play in a film. He’s playing shots, and looking super cool doing it. He isn’t making runs, though. In this series he averages 24.25 with one fifty. His strike rate of 60 is higher than any other England batsman, including Kevin Pietersen.
Pietersen is not in great form but his hundred at Old Trafford saved the game for England. At Trent Bridge his 64 helped set up a winning total. And his partnership with Ian Bell on Sunday was what ended Australia’s hopes of having a good day. Australia have tried to play against his ego, and they’ve done well at times. But when he is in full form, he’s untouchable to them. At Old Trafford they tried to sledge him and he laughed at them while saying something along the lines of “Do you think I worry about going out? I don’t worry about that at all. Not at all.”
Then there is Bell. If the Avengers came up against Ian Bell right now, they would lose. Bell is supernatural. If Elvis ever found form like this, they would have renamed earth in his honour. The only way to slow his scoring down is with a third man, everything else is meaningless. Australia couldn’t get him to leave the wicket with a bulldozer and, in the form of Harris, they sort of have one. Bell can be weak against Saeed Ajmal’s doosra and his own mind. Australia have no doosras, and they can’t penetrate his mind. Ian Ronald Bell will stop dominating once he is good and ready.
Jonny Bairstow is a worry for England, and Matt Prior is in bad form. But by the time Australia get to them, they’re so far behind that it has rarely mattered.
It may not be England’s grand plan and they not be executing their skills in the way Flower would want, but they are better than Australia. Today, as Ian Bell floated around the crease, Andy Flower might have smiled again. It wasn’t a plan coming together; it was something prettier and more perfect than that.
Had Mark Waugh beheaded an alien invader with a spork while bombs fell around him, he would have done it gracefully. That was just how he was.
It also meant that had Mark Waugh failed to tame a wayward schnauzer that was running around his bathroom, he would have been called soft. That was just how it works.
Ian Bell is not as effortlessly graceful as Waugh or Gower. And unlike Gower and Waugh he doesn’t seem to enjoy it as much. But in modern cricket, there are few who can make every ball seem like it’s been bowled in slow motion like Bell. Technically, he is a textbook. A pretty illustrated textbook. If you are a batting purist, watching him reach forward and defend a ball is on its own: a moment of beauty and perfection.
And if you like that, you’ll need a cold shower and a lie down after he plays a cover drive.
For the longest time that was all you got, aesthetic perfection, as if all his innings were like a shuttlecock falling serenely to ground, before a racquet comes in and smashes the hell out of it.
You’ll no doubt have your favourite Ian Bell “I can’t believe he got out” moment. It might be a collection of horror drives to short cover. Maybe it was a breezy chip on the legside. Or anytime he’s got confused playing spin in the sub-continent. For me, and I doubt I’m alone, it is the Paul Harris wicket.
Aesthetically they are worlds apart. Ian Bell is stylish and correct. Paul Harris is technically horrible and about as aesthetically unpleasing as any spinner ever. On pure cricket talent, Ian Bell has paddling pools of it, Paul Harris has a thimble’s worth. But when Paul Harris came around the wicket, bowled from wide on the crease, and put even less spin on the ball than usual, Ian Bell just left it. He left it gracefully, technically correct and confidently watched it all closely.
He watched the bell so closely, he saw it not just clip the outside of off stump; he saw it hit the inside of off and a bit of middle.
If that one dismissal wasn’t a lesson to Ian Bell then he just wasn’t taking cricket seriously enough.
Of course, since then, Ian Bell has had more coming of age moments than Kevin Arnold had in The Wonder Years. The English cricket writers have narrated every single lesson that he has learnt, and Ian Bell has aged just as slowly as Kevin did.
Coming into the Ashes he was in a form slide. India was unkind to him. The Kiwis were not that fruitful. He could have been under pressure to maintain his spot had his Ashes mirrored his recent form. No one talked Bell up before this series. He was just the third or fourth name you mentioned when talking about the ‘batting unit’.
According to him, he is now better at grinding out innings than ever before. But he’s not suddenly turned into Paul Collingwood; he’s just using his normal skills and technique to essentially keep England in this series.
Today’s innings was magnificent. It was heroic. It was Ian Bell at his best. Chanceless. Pretty. And without any fuss or smiles.
Bell doesn’t get involved in sledging. His sex life doesn’t make the papers. He’s not in court on charges ever. He does not abuse his teammates. He seems unlikely to make himself into a Reality TV regular. He’s not got a drug addiction. He’s never claimed to suffer from depression. He just bats. And bats well.
Alastair Cook is posh and doesn’t sweat. KP is ego and genius. Graeme Swann is a failed rockstar and a confident spinner.
Ian Bell has played more Ashes Tests than all of them. And yet, all that comes to mind about him is that he bats pretty and he sometimes goes out softly. A PR firm would have a tough job selling him on anything else.
While they were making bronze statues of Jimmy Anderson outside Trent Bridge, there was little reference to the short ginger batsman who is apparently too soft to score runs when they matter but who gave Jimmy the lead he needed to get England over the line. England would not be 1-0 without Ian Bell. They would not be 289 for 7 today if not for Ian Bell.
This series Jonathan Trott has been careless. Alastair Cook has looked distracted. And KP has yet to find full form. England needed someone to step up.
For the second straight innings, it was Ian Bell. He did it in the exact same way he left that ball that bowled him by Paul Harris, with grace, confidence and technically perfect.
It’s just that now there is something behind the façade where Ian Bell has improved. It’s the grinding we don’t notice in between the pretty drives. Something has changed in him. He’s got it.
Even when he was out of form, against New Zealand, he still fought to save a Test. Sure, he’ll continue to go out in ways that we see as lazy, silly or cheap, because when he is in form like this, it’s impossible to understand how he could ever be dismissed.
If you’ve ever seen an Ian Bell hundred in person, you’re a lucky human being.
If you’re England in this Ashes, you’re a lucky team.
There was a time when I thought instead of playing Test Cricket; Ian Bell should be oiled up, naked and playing his cover drive in a giant birdcage at parties.
That was the old Ian Bell, the nervous Ian Bell. The Ian Bell who could play a cover drive so good Leonard Cohen would write it a song one minute, and then miss a straight ball the next that would make his mother change and consider changing her name.
The new Ian Bell is something else. When he’s in his special happy place, the ball dances of his pretty blade like a butterfly on a beautiful spring day. He’s almost impregnable. Technically sound, mentally tight, and easy. No matter who he plays against, when he’s in that magic mode, it looks like you could fire bricks, missiles or copies of 50 shades of Grey at him, and nothing would get through him.
Since 2010 he’s averaged over 60 from a guy who was dropped in 2009.
The old Ian Bell never seems too far away though. Yapping at the heels of the improved model and occasionally biting him.
Everyone has their own theory on the run out against India at Trent Bridge. But one thing that can’t be denied was that Ian Bell had a massive lapse of concentration that caused a stupid mistake. In the UAE for the series against Pakistan, he batted like someone threatened to burn all his video games if he made runs. And today, well, today.
Ian Bell’s shot today should be shot behind a curtain and fed to unfussy dog.
It was disgusting to look at, it’s only redeeming feature was that Ian Bell didn’t fall over playing it. There is no way to describe this in words and do its awfulness justice.
If Simon Katich, Phil Hughes or Shiv Chanderpaul had played this shot it would have been awful looking, and mocked, but people would have forgotten the image soon enough. For Ian Bell to play a short that was cricket’s equivalent of placing a bag of vomit in the washing machine, it doesn’t go away. It’s just there, in my brain, wildly swinging with no footwork near my primary somatosensory cortex.
When I watch England, I want to get past Trott, Cook and Strauss to get to Bell. But not for this. No. I don’t want it. Make it stop, Bell. Either stay classy, or go back to being pretty and frequently dim witted.
No one can keep their beauty forever, but you don’t have to give it away with a wild unbalanced swing like that. Belly, you’re prettier than that.
Either way, for this crime against eyes, I’m taking you out of my oversized birdcage.
Not that long ago, I put Ian Bell naked in a birdcage. Not literally, that would have been awkward for us both.
I did it in my book (free shipping).
I’ve never quite gotten Ian Bell. Aesthetically he is a pretty picture. Square jawed, cap always bent in a very good arc, dreamy eyes, and a cover drive that could test your sexuality.
The problem is, that was all he had.
There have been fewer batsmen I’ve ever seen who could put an innings together as bad as he does. Instead of building a base for a long stay, he seemed to just be out there because that is where he was. Like a kid out the front of a shopping centre.
Today he crafted an innings.
He could have done more, much more. But that he did anything at all was pretty impressive.
I keep being told that South Africa was the making of Ian Bell; he averaged 44 in that series.
I don’t know what made him, but he is different. There is a brain and planning behind that sexy little drive now.
His 76 today wasn’t from accidental crease occupation.
There could be a time soon when the Grisham of the 30 odds no longer makes those scores. He could just make real test innings like someone of his talent should. And not just against Bangladesh, but real places with test cricketers in their teams.
One day it could be a waste to over get him naked, lube him up and put him in the oversized birdcage, literally or otherwise.
Why Ian Bell has never actually ended up naked in a bird cage no one knows, but he does often bat for England. Occasionally at number 6 and frequently against Bangladesh Ian Bell looks like he is the perfect test batting machine. Mostly he looks like he has forgotten his pin while standing at the ATM. His 30 odds are made with calm and class, as is his walk from the field shortly after. Watching him can be a maternal moment for most people as we just want to take him and give him a hug, or choke him to death and throw him into a lake.
I should say he wasn’t actually in the toilet at Lord’s, but he was in there via this picture.
And even forget that Lebara have found the cheapest no name shirts they could for the ad, and think about what this could have been.
It is placed above the piss troughs at the grounds, it should be Dirk with a shit eating grin on his face, pointing his camera down like he is taking a picture of your cock, while Vaas and Saqlain kick the shit out of someone in a chicken suit in the back ground.
Some people just don’t have the flare for advertising that we do.
Happy Jesus on a stick day. A day that is all about honouring someone who died so that we can all be perverts and animals, but you can’t eat steak, in case some is made of him.
In honour of Jesus dying I’ve compiled an XI of players who died, and were then reborn, or you know, other Christian type shit. Jesus, as we all know, was a wicket keeper.
S Katich – Found himself in a cricket career cave due to some horrific test form, but then his God, Bob Simpson, helped him, and thankfully we now have Katich shuttling around the crease for days on end.
M Sinclair – Impossible as it is to enjoy the way he plays, Sinclair is the one cricketer most likely to survive Sodom and Gomorrah. When the Kiwis are having a selectorial apocalypse, it is Sinclair they turn to. He will always live with us.
I Bell – If Bell truly was the son of God, Christianity would have died out by now. Instead Bell seems ordained by some higher power, perhaps Murdoch, to play the number 3 position for England. He coveted it while he had to wait out Pestilence (Shah), War (Bopara) and Famine (Trott) but he found his way back to number three.
M Hussey – Has never left heavenly earth, but what exactly was he doing between the age of 12 and 30.
K Pietersen – An outcast with his old religion he became the father, son and holy bail of a new one. It still hasn’t been smooth sailing, but he no longer has to bowl off spin, so that is good.
K Akmal – Crucified on the pitch for one of the most heretical displays of wicket keeping ever written about. But he will be back, you can’t keep a Pakistani cricketer away for too long. Even if he comes back as a kolpak.
A Flintoff – as was written.
N Hauritz – Outbowled by M Clarke and then shunned by his country, his state, and his knew state. One day four wise men decided to pick him up from the gutter he found himself in, and bugger me if he hasn’t stayed around since then.
S Bond – Needed to go on a spiritual adventure to India so that one day he could come back to New Zealand and tell them he was available for white ball games and then continued his spiritual adventure in India.
A Mendis – The man is full of mystery, but once you work it out, it is all kind of simple and you don’t really care anymore.
A Nehra – From a world cup final to the great abyss, but thanks to Lalit K, Nehra has been brought back so that we can all pray at his long limbs and permanent angry face.
J Patel (12th) – Is so good at being 12th man I couldn’t see why he wouldn’t do it for Jesus.