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Astute Bell reaps rewards of patience

70Batting in Test cricket remains as much about the shots you don’t play as those you do and it was Ian Bell’s judgement at the crease that set the foundation for England’s domination

Ian Bell ensured he had seen off the new ball at its hardest, the bowlers at their freshest and the pitch at its most damp and lively © Getty Images
In years to come, when we reflect on Ian Bell’s career, the talk will be of cover drives, late cuts and that imperious pull stroke that combines beauty and power in a way few batsmen can emulate. All were on display on the first day of the Test in Antigua.
The talk will be of his talent and timing, his style and his skill, his ease on the eye. People will talk of his natural gifts and, besides rejoicing in the runs he scored, bemoan those he did not. When you make batting look as easy as Bell, people expect a great deal.
What may not be considered is the other side of Bell. The discipline and the denial. The patience and persistence. The fact that he sometimes had to work very hard to make it look so easy.
So while Bell may never completely shake the image of the man who makes pretty runs when the pressure is off – a reputation he admits to deserving for the first half-dozen years of his Test career – he provided another reminder here that such a tag is both outdated and unfair.
These were not soft runs. England were 34 for 3 shortly after he started this innings and, had Bell departed early after a pretty 30, an exciting but inexperienced middle-order would have been exposed to conditions at their most testing. Ben Stokes, who later batted with such freedom that Bell said he had “hit the ball as cleanly as anyone I’ve seen”, might not have had the platform to punish weary bowlers.
It took Bell 20 deliveries to get off the mark. He left six of his first seven deliveries and, after 48 balls, had scored only 10. But in that time, he had seen off the new ball at its hardest, the bowlers at their freshest and the pitch at its most damp and lively. He had made the investment. Then he just had to collect the dividend.
Nobody goes to a day’s cricket to see a batsman leave the ball. And, truth be told, not many go home talking about the balls that were left, either. But not many go to Paris and talk about the foundations of the Eiffel Tower or to Barcelona and send home postcards of the foundations of Gaudi’s church. They still matter.
Test batting remains as much about the shots you don’t play as those you do. And it was Bell’s judgement about which deliveries to leave that paved the way for his later dominance. So while it was the gorgeously timed boundaries in Bell’s century – his highest overseas score and his first outside the UK since the Nagpur Test of 2012 – that linger, it was his ability to leave those deliveries that snared his colleagues that made the difference.
While Jonathan Trott edged a good one to slip – the sympathetic might say he received the ball Bell received on 143 when he had 0 – and Gary Ballance was drawn into a push at a wide one, Bell showed the benefit of a compact defence and astute judgement of where his off stump was.
While Bell’s ODI career may well be at an end, it is not ridiculous to think the best years may still be ahead of him in Test cricket
It is true that many of his best performances – not least his Ashes defining contributions of 2013 – have come on sluggish surfaces. The sort of surfaces that break fast bowlers’ hearts. But it is not Bell’s fault that Test cricket is now played, outside Australia, almost entirely on attritional pitches.
This innings meant a great deal to Bell. On his only previous Test tour of the Caribbean, he was dropped after the debacle of Jamaica 2009. The experience hurt him deeply and forced him to confront some uncomfortable truths: truths that included accepting that he tended to go missing when the action was at its most intense and that, for all his silky strokes, he was not shaping games as the best must. He was, in short, a luxury player.
“The last time we were here in 2009 I got dropped,” Bell said. “It was the right decision at the time to drop me.
“That tour was a massive turning point in my career. I had to work very hard to get back into the team.
“To come back here and score a hundred in the place I got dropped is a nice feeling. It’s satisfying to put that one right. I knew when I came here I really wanted to make this one count. It meant a lot to me.”
Asked if the innings was among the best of his career, Bell replied: “It was right up there. It doesn’t get much better. We were 30-odd for three, so if you can put on a 150-run partnership that’s just what we needed at the time.”
It is currently fashionable to believe that cricket has changed. That the influence of T20 has made it imperative to play aggressive cricket at all times. That batsmen have to attack and bowlers seek to deliver wicket-taking balls at all times.
But it is not so. Test cricket, at least, remains as much about patience as skill. It remains as much about building pressure with the ball and withstanding it with the bat.
And there is plenty of time. After scoring at under two-an-over in the first session, England plundered 174 in the final 36 overs of the day against an attack lacking a fourth seamer and for whom the spinner was unable to fulfil the containing role required. None of the last 10 Tests played in the Caribbean have been drawn.
While Bell’s ODI career may well be at an end, it is not ridiculous to think the best years may still be ahead of him in Test cricket. The England management have long hoped to see Bell demonstrate the leadership qualities he displays at county level – where he has been a giant for many years – in the Test dressing room, but have instead found a somewhat reticent, diffident man reluctant to impose himself or even offer his views.
But last week, a few days before his 33rd birthday, he was appointed vice-captain in the hope that the responsibility would be the making of him. That he has responded with a beautiful innings is pleasing, but we have long known he is capable of such qualities. What will really delight the team management is that he has responded with the innings of a leader.