Alex Massie

Ian Bell

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What is it about Ian Bell? By which I mean, why does the poor fellow arouse such animosity? No other player in the current England team sees his failures magnified and successes downplayed to such an extent. Even when he bats well, his critics use this as evidence that, damn it, he should be batting like this all the time. Perhaps today's splendid 199 against South Africa will quieten the critics. But if so, I suspect it will do so only temporarily.

A friend suggests that Bell is the victim of the "Henman effect". That is to say, he's a nice, middle-class public schoolboy (Rugby in Bell's case) whose demeanour is the opposite of the swagger or blue-collar defiance that's more in vogue with the times. There may be something to this, though it's worth noting that Alastair Cook, another nice middle-class lad, does not face the same level of opprobrium.

Another theory, that I find more persuasive, is that when Bell bats well he makes the game look easy. He has a classical style that produces, at its best, a certain timeless elegance at the crease. Among current and recent England cricketers, Michael Vaughan is his only rival in these stakes. Going further back, I remember that David Gower, to my enormous irritation, even fury, received much more criticism than other, lesser players, in part because his dismissals were put down to "carelessness" largely because Gower so often made batting look the simplest thing in the world. Yeomen were praised for their industry; Gower condemned for his cavalier disregard for the "work ethic" and apparently wasteful approach to life at the crease. (Might one draw a comparison with English football? Now there's a discipline that has, these past 30 years, generally been suspicious of skill and grace and artistry, preferring stout-hearted perspiration to elegance or anything that might be mercurial or unpredictable).

No one has a pop at Paul Collingwood since everyone recognises that, admirably, Collingwood has squeezed the most out of his talent; indeed he's probably done better than anyone with his intrinsic level of ability had any right to. By contrast, behind the criticism of Bell lurks the suspicion that he's something of a dilettante.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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