Early in his career, Ian Bell made a name for himself as that English batsman who Shane Warne always got out. During the 2006 Ashes series, which England went on to lose 5-0, Warne told the media that he ‘had the wood on Ian Bell’. The star leg spinner dubbed the then 24-year-old strawberry blonde Bell ‘the Shermanator’, after the character in the film American Pie, and spent much of the lead up to the fourth test patronising him - arguably justified, considering Warne had dismissed him five times in eight Tests. Bell would later admit that the sledging actually had an impact on him, but despite a relatively slow start to his Test career - notwithstanding an incredible first three innings in which he accumulated 297 runs while being dismissed just once - he was ultimately able to forge together a superb career and become one of England’s most decorated batsmen.
He began to place himself among the best in the world in 2010, a year in which he amassed 786 runs in just 14 innings at the average of 65.5. The next year, he stepped it up even further. He scored the third most runs in Test cricket that year, behind the very reasonable company of Rahul David and Kumar Sangakkara, but notable in the statistics is the fact that he played just 11 innings that year compared to over 20 for each of those two batsmen. He had comfortably the highest average among all batsmen in 2011, going at the incredible rate of 118.75 runs per innings.
This was aided significantly by an extraordinary start to the calendar year in which he scored two 50’s and three 100’s in his first five innings, at the average of 223. Later on in the year he managed 159 against India, before finishing his year with a 235 at the Oval. Not bad going, and at this stage it would have been fair to label him the dominant batsman in world cricket.
He continued to play reasonable cricket thereafter, though he never again reached the heights of those two seasons. His form began to dwindle over the years, until in 2015, his final season of Test cricket, he managed an average of just 25.95 runs per innings in 13 Tests.
He was then axed from the team, seemingly finishing an historic career. He had managed 118 Tests, currently the fifth most in history for England - tied with Graham Gooch. He scored 7727 runs at an average of 42.69, and accumulated 22 centuries - the third most in English cricket history.
He appeared destined to play out his cricket life in the lower levels, but this year his form has reached a point where a return to the Test arena seems increasingly plausible by the day. In 2018, he has demonstrated that he is still an extremely capable batsman. Currently, he is racking them up at an average of 55.81 runs per innings in the County Championship. He is also dominating domestic T20 as the second leading run scorer in the tournament at a strike rate of 144.92.
Of course, after almost three years out of International cricket, such form doesn’t necessarily warrant a return to the Test side, particularly with England seemingly favouring youth in recent times. England’s middle order, however, is facing plenty of question marks, and an experienced and proven middle order batsman may be just what the doctor ordered.
They have just kicked off a five Test series against the world’s number one ranked side, India, and as the fifth ranked side themselves, could easily drop below Sri Lanka into sixth if results don’t fall their way. They did, however, start off with an exciting win in the first Test, though it wasn’t exactly the most maligned members of the middle order who did the damage.
David Malan struggled enormously, registering just 28 runs in two innings at number four and dropping three catches in the slips. He was subsequently given the flick for the second Test, but national selector Ed Smith continued to stick to his policy of youth, opting to give Ollie Pope a debut Test cap for the second test.
Pope, at just 20 years of age, has had an incredibly promising start to his career, averaging 63.25 in his 15 first-class matches so far. He appears likely to be a long term player for England, but having just entered his 20’s there is every chance that the step up in level will not immediately yield runs. If that does indeed prove to be the case, Bell’s name will no doubt enter the conversation.
As for Bell’s own desire to return to the International arena, it appears that he would certainly be willing to return to the fray. As he said himself, ‘I definitely want to play again. If you had asked me that 12 months ago, it would have been a different answer’.
There is, of course, plenty of water left to pass under the bridge before a return which seemed impossible for much of the past three years ago to actually occur. With a lack of an obvious option at number four, however, and a man who scored nearly 8,000 runs at the position in good form, it is a distinct possibility, something which couldn’t have been said just a matter of months ago.
Recently, Stuart Broad overtook Bell as England’s fourth most capped player in history. Though it’s far from a certainty, perhaps Bell will soon be given the chance to increase on his 118 career Test matches.