Ask Ian Bell the question of whether he ever wants to play for England again and you would get a different answer to the one he would have given a year ago.
It was in August 2017 when Bell and the Warwickshire management came to the mutual decision that it was time for Bell to stand down as captain of the Bears.
Runs in all forms of the game were hard to come by, his dream of winning back his long-standing place in the England middle order looked over – and even Bell admits he contemplated retirement.
A year on, the runs are flowing again, England’s middle order is still failing to function properly – and, at the still comparatively tender age of 36, Bell is happy to concede that he still has a hunger to hit the high spots again.
“The questions have started to come a little bit more now, with the form I’ve had through the season and obviously England’s middle order,” he told BBC WM.
“If you asked me that question now I would definitely want to play again.
“If you’d asked me that 12 months ago, it would have been a different answer.
“Whether it is with Warwickshire, Birmingham Bears or England, I just still want to be winning games of cricket.”
When Bell was first jettisoned by England’s Test selectors for the South Africa tour in early 2016, just shortly after enjoying his fourth Ashes series triumph, the decision came in the wake of him having already called it a day with England as a one-day and T20 international.
But the strains of taking on the Warwickshire captaincy for the 2016 season soon told, his form suffered and he did little or nothing to warrant winning that Test place back.
He even denied himself the chance to enjoy the luxury of a winter off by taking up an offer from down under, where he helped Perth Scorchers win Australia’s Big Bash. And, despite a change of management at Edgbaston, the pressures built throughout 2017 to the point where Bell quit as captain.
The key to his form this summer, however, lies in the complete break from cricket he was allowed by Bears sport director Ashley Giles and head coach Jim Troughton at the end of the 2017 season.
Bell’s case for an England return
- In eight County Championship matches this season, he has made 665 runs at 55.42, hitting three centuries – two of them in the same game after going more than two years without one.
- In 10 T20 Blast games, he has also hit 471 runs at 58.88 – the second highest total in the country.
- Including both wicketkeepers Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow and all-rounders Moeen Ali and Ben Stokes, England have called on a total of 13 different batsmen in their middle order since Bell was last picked.
- The other nine are captain Joe Root, the now retired James Taylor, Nick Compton, James Vince, Gary Ballance, Ben Duckett, Tom Westley, Dawid Malan and now Ollie Pope.
- Bell is the same age as England’s all-time record wicket taker James Anderson, still a key member of the team.
- In 118 Tests, following his debut in 2004, Bell made 7,727 runs for England at an average of 42.69.
‘There were some massive questions in my own mind’
“Last year, I wasn’t in a particularly good place,” said Bell. “I’d struggled with the batting and there were some massive questions in my own mind as to whether it was time to retire and I did ask myself those questions.
“I spoke to a lot of people I trust and I decided to have a real break. I spoke to the management and said I didn’t want to hit any cricket balls between now and the New Year.
“I don’t know quite how it works out like that but I came back and, in my first net with our batting coach Tony Frost, I hit the ball as well as I have done in the last couple of years.
“Whether it was just being fresh, energetic, excited, I don’t know but I just felt back in a really good place and more like myself again.”
Bell’s longevity should never have been in question. He was, after all, in the same 2005 Ashes winning team as Marcus Trescothick and Paul Collingwood, both of whom are still playing county cricket at 42.
“Tres is still going strong,” he said. “Colly as well. We’re the last three. And I’m comfortably the youngest.
“It’s been quite a tough adjustment not being an England player any more. But I felt even when I finished with England that I had a lot of cricket left under my belt. I spoke to a lot of ex-players and they all said ‘you’re a long time retired, don’t look back with any regrets’.
“We’ve got some very good young players coming through at Edgbaston and, if I can help in any way just by being there, whether it’s in the nets or whatever, I could help that next generation by passing a bit of knowledge on.
“I’d simply like to be playing as long as I possibly can if my body can stay together.”
Ian Bell was talking to BBC WM’s Mike Taylor.