Ian Bell has finally found the levels of confidence that the retired Zimbabwe spinner has been cashing in on for years
By Andy Bull theGuardian.com Zimbabwe’s Ray Price, left, has retired from international cricket. Meanwhile, England’s Ian Bell goes from strength to strength. Photograph: Hamish Blair/Getty Images
I like to think that on Sunday 28 July, Ray Price woke up angry. Just as he had done on Saturday 27 July, Friday 26 July, Thursday 25 July, and every single other one of 4,286 days he has been playing cricket for Zimbabwe. Those who know him say that Ray Price is a lovely fellow, and it’s just that he just suffers from a severe case of what the old pros call white line fever. When he crosses the boundary, he becomes a different person. But I’ve never spoken to him, only seen him play, so I imagine that if he has a cat, it spends its time cowering in the corner in case he kicks it, and that at breakfast his family keep their eyes down and their mouths shut in case Ray sledges them over his cereal.
Ray Price is the angriest man in cricket. Or he was. He retired last Monday. His spirit, no doubt, was still in a searing red-hot funk. But his body was, if not weak, because weak is not the word you would use to describe him – in Zimbabwe they say that ghosts sit around the campfire at night and tell each other Ray Price stories – but too tired, too sore to allow him to play on. Price peddled rinky-dink left-arm-spin, but he followed-through like the most ferocious of fast bowlers, which is what he always wanted to be anyway. “I just wish,” he says, “I had been a bit quicker, so I could have knocked a few guys’ blocks off.”
True story. In 2003 Zimbabwe were playing the West Indies in an ODI in Harare. The West Indies were chasing 196, and Brian Lara, almost entirely uninterested, had ambled to seven from 19 balls. Then Ray came on. His first ball to Lara was a dot, blocked back down the pitch. “Come on!” Ray shouted, veins throbbing, eyes swivelling, “You’re supposed to be the best batsman in the world! Take me on!” Lara thumped the next ball for six over extra cover, the one after that for six over mid-wicket. He hit 25 runs from the next 10 balls Price bowled to him. Ray got yanked from the attack.
Ray used to sledge Jacques Kallis for being too fat. When Kallis lost weight, Ray started sledging him for being too thin. Said it had cost him all his power. When Kallis hit him for a four, Ray told him “in the old days when you were bigger you would have hit that out of the ground. Now you’re so skinny you can’t reach.” Price gave his final interview as a player to Liam Brickhill, over on Cricinfo. It’s a lovely article . In it he says that “There’s no way that I should have played Test cricket or one-day cricket or any sort of cricket, let alone be picked for any side.” Yes, Ray Price even sledges himself.
Price is being a little modest. He was once ranked No2 in the world in ODI cricket. Which is incredible, given that he put so little spin on the ball that on one of the very few occasions he did rip one past the bat, and had Shane Watson stumped, everyone was so surprised that Ian Healey went on to the pitch after stumps to look for the stone he was sure the ball must have landed on to make it turn so much. Price never had much talent, but he compensated for it with his attitude. The little dogs are the most quarrelsome, and like them, Ray seemed completely oblivious to his lack of stature. He was happy to pick fights with bigger, better players.
Which makes Price the antithesis of Ian Bell, a man who has always been as richly gifted as any other player, but who once seemed so short of self-confidence that he was completely discombobulated when Shane Warne started calling him ‘Sherminator’. It is an old joke, and one that was never that funny in the first place. Even if Andrew Fintoff says that the first time he heard it, when he was out in the middle with Bell, he was so tickled that he had to stifle bursts of giggles at the very moment his partner was looking to him to provide a little support.
Eight years later, Warne still says that the best way to get Bell out is “to be super aggressive towards him with body language and intensity”, and that “intimidation in the field is the key and will do the trick.” That’s the rarest of deliveries from Warne, one well wide of the mark. It almost makes you wish he would come out of retirement just to try it. But it worked once.
While Price was being left out of teams as a teenager, always, as he says, the last kid to be picked because he “couldn’t run and could catch”, Bell was fast-tracked into them. At 14 he averaged over 100 for Warwickshire’s U16s, at 16 he made his debut for England U19s, at 17 he made his first class debut, and at 19 he was called into the England squad. Cricket came easy to him. Which may be why it has taken him so long to master it.
Before he had even played for England, Scyld Berry wrote that “Bell will become the first great cricketer to make his England debut for a quarter of a century.” Over a decade later, Berry, who is, just like Warne, an excellent judge, was calling for Bell to be dropped from the Test team, arguing that “he has not taken the opportunity to turn his great talent and impeccable technique into world-class consistency.” Berry wasn’t alone in that view. I said similar things after Bell’s bizarre dismissal in Ahmedabad last winter, when he swaggered to the wicket, full of macho intent, and then swatted his first ball straight to mid-off. It seemed then that he still suffered from frailties which would have seemed utterly alien to Price, who would have envied his talent but pitied his fragility.
Eight months later, Bell is batting better than ever. These have been his Ashes. His scores of 25, 109, 109, 74, 60, and 4 not out, have been, along with Graeme Swann’s bowling, the biggest single difference between the two teams. Bell has found this kind of form before. He scored five Test centuries in 2011, but he did it in a team which was playing superbly well as a collective, and afterwards he fell into a slump as bad as any he has experienced in his career. This time around, he has done it when England’s other senior batsmen have been struggling. As he came out to bat at Old Trafford, with 64 for three, it felt, for the first time, as though Bell had grown to be the best all-round batsman in the team, their bulwark against another collapse. Less flamboyant than Kevin Pietersen, but more resolute than him too.
What’s changed? One simple thing, easily over-looked, is that he has become a father. It may seem a little ingenuous to suggest it, but that may have finally helped him mature as a man, and a player. Since his wife gave birth, he’s been averaging 51 in Test cricket, with three centuries and that marvellous, match-saving 75 in Auckland. It’s not his form, though, so much as his fettle, that seems different. In his interviews, and on the pitch, he seems more comfortable in his own skin.As he told Don McRae recently, he thinks the real difference is “self-belief. Just absolute belief that I can go out there and compete with the best players in the world.”
Bell is still only 31. For all his gifts, he has only just found the one thing advantage that Ray Price was blessed with from birth – self-belief. That quality on its own was enough to help Price become, against all odds, a success. Married with the talent that Bell has, it could take him further still, to the kind of plain occupied by the very finest batsmen who have played the game.
This is an extract taken from The Spin, the Guardian’s weekly cricket email via http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2013/aug/07/the-spin-ray-price-ian-bell