June 2nd, 2002. The last ever Benson & Hedges Cup final. Warwickshire v Essex at Lord's.
Essex make 181 for eight. It is a modest total, but when the Bears hit 21 for two, it’s very much game on. Game on and pressure on. This is where your big players step forward.
Ian Bell, just past his 20th birthday, is playing only his 14th limited-overs game for Warwickshire. Pressure? What pressure?
Along with fellow home-grown young gun Jim Troughton (who turns the tide with a dynamic 37 with eight fours), Bell rebuilds. He takes the process all the way, ending unbeaten on 65 as the Bears cruise to a five-wicket victory with 13.4 overs to spare.
The class innings was further vindication of the long-held view at Edgbaston that here was a player with the temperament, as well as talent, to go to the very top.
Evidence had consistently piled up. A maiden century, aged 19, in an opening stand of 343 with Michael Powell at Oxford in April 2001. An accomplished maiden championship ton against Nottinghamshire at Edgbaston a few weeks later. Now, delivery on the biggest stage, a Lord’s final.
“It’s strange to think now of that Essex game,” recalls Bell. “A red-ball final…the game has moved on so much!
“It was a fantastic day. We started the game so well when Shaun Pollock had Nasser Hussain nicked off in the first over. For me, as a youngster, it was great to have players like Shaun around to learn from. That allowed me to take my time and adjust to that level with no expectation or pressure. The senior players made it such a great environment to come into. It was a really good culture to be part of.Ian Bell
“Bob Woolmer’s return as coach also helped a lot. I learned so much from him. He added some finishing touches to my game, not just about technique but about how to play the game generally. I really enjoyed those three years when Bob came back to the Bears.”
Woolmer was massively influential on Bell’s development as both cricketer and person. No less so was Woolmer’s successor as Warwickshire director of cricket, John Inverarity, who steered the Bears to the championship title in 2004.
“John arranged for me to play club cricket in Australia in the winter of 2003/04,” said Bell. “That was just the right thing for me to do at that time.
“I met some amazing people and getting thrown in out there, a young English lad into an Aussie environment where they don’t care what you’ve done for England Under 19s or what people say about you in England, was just right for me. I was completely out of my comfort zone and it was exactly what I needed.
“It was about finding my feet and delivering. It was the best winter I could possibly have had and I’d advise any young cricketer to go out and play in the winter. Whether it’s in Australia, New Zealand or South Africa, just go and play. That’s where you get better, out in the middle.”Ian Bell
That winter truly launched Bell’s career. He ended the 2004 season having scored 1,498 runs in the Bears’ championship triumph and 70 in his first Test innings for England, against West Indies at The Oval.
“I came back from Australia in good form, started off well and hit a real purple match in the middle,” he said. “Then I got my Test debut and it was a great time to jump into the England team. We won all seven Test matches that year, against New Zealand and West Indies.
“I’m so lucky to have had such a long England career and played with some of the best England players ever and been part of some amazing triumphs. We won some big series, in India and the Ashes in Australia. It was just a dream come true.”
For the Bears fans, Bell’s 12 years at the heart of England’s top order were a mixed blessing. It was great to have two Bears – Bell and Jonathan Trott – powering England’s glory, but it did mean they were rarely available for county duty.
“As an England player, you don’t get to play for your county much, certainly in your best years,” said Bell. “But when I was in the England dressing-room, the first thing I would always check at the end of a day’s play was the Warwickshire score. And every time I came back to Warwickshire I loved it tried to make an impact. Winning a Lord’s final as captain was a dream come true…that was a standout day.”
Bell’s career features many standout days, along with, as with any long sporting career, some tougher days. All are threaded through with the Bear & Ragged Staff.
“There have been lows among the highs and a mixture of feelings, but that’s always going to be the case if you are lucky enough to have a long career in professional sport,” he said. “The tough times are where you become resilient and learn from mistakes and come back stronger.
“Through it all, Warwickshire has been my cricketing home. I could never have asked to play for a better club. Edgbaston has always been a fantastic stadium and the facilities now compare with any I have seen in the world. There is nowhere better. Anyone is so lucky to be a Warwickshire player.”Ian Bell
*In Part Three tomorrow: Ian Bell looks ahead and suggests the one team for whom he might consider playing at some point in the future.