Ian Bell is, as Winston Churchill said of Russia, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma and as such he has been mocked as often as he has been praised and, worst of all, he has been called a failure far more often than he deserves.
In simple, sporting terms Bell has always been inconsistent but now he has confused us even more by making runs as regularly as the clock ticks. Whatever next?
As he showed at Rajkot on Friday, when he added 85 to his two big innings in the warm-up matches, he has, aged 30, turned the corner. A century was waiting for him when he was run out by a direct hit. Bell will not complain. His runs so far on this brief trip have made up for many a let-down.
Like Keith Fletcher 30 years ago, Bell often attracts unjustified criticism. Perhaps it is his dour look; laughter one imagines costs him a dollar a time.
Besides when we have expected him to bat fluently, showing all those gorgeous strokes on the offside, glancing the ball finely to leg and hitting, with surprising force for a small man, he has too often pulled up short. Not so on Friday. He played within himself after finding early in his innings that he had kept his form and, although at the end, Cook began to catch him, it was Bell who kept the score moving.
So what has been wrong all these years? Recently it has been suggested that the birth of his son in the middle of the Test tour distracted him but wiser minds found a different reason several years ago.
Bob Woolmer, a huge loss to the coaching fraternity, a man who to my knowledge often puts his finger right on the nub of puzzles in a few words — “England will not win back the Ashes until they can control Adam Gilchrist at No.7” he wrote to me just before England managed that trick in 2005 — put it best.
“Bell is a great player but I am not sure if he can find it in himself to be consistent,” he said the last time I saw him a few months before the hideous incident that ended his life.
“I have done my best by talking to him as often as he wanted me to and I shall do that again because I helped him when I was his coach at Warwickshire. I believe we must treasure him for what he is and not try to turn him into something he is not.”
So although England, beaten twice in warm-up matches, thought Bell would be its mainstay in the first One-Day International against M.S. Dhoni and his men at Rajkot, it must also have had doubts.
Which Bell would go out to bat? The Doubting Thomas of a defensive batsman or the daring stroke-maker, willing to defy bowlers of any and every pace, sure of footwork, with supple yet steely hands and a great eye.
Now that the baby is born, now that Bell is a permanent member of the side, now that he will often bat with Kevin Pietersen, the great encourager, we must hope for better things. Bell has been part of this successful side for 10 years, under Duncan Fletcher and Andy Flower, coaches who knew Woolmer and his thinking are sure to have added to his ideas.
Ask not for whom the bell tolls, the poet said. This year the peals for Bell are likely to be loud and continuous and make him as important to England’s batting as anyone else in the top order.