Ian Bell tells David Johns why he’s called time on his glittering cricket career – and reveals his plans for life after Warwickshire and England
At some point, it’s going to hit me, Ian Bell admits. The Warwickshire and England batsman, for so long the mainstay in both winning teams, isn’t talking about a 90mph bouncer bowled by the likes of Aussie great, Glenn McGrath. Rather, he’s being realistic about the impact of retiring from the first-class game.
For now, though, he sounds as chipper about spending more time with his family and helping out with jobs around the house as his batting looked when he was at his best. And, as all cricket lovers know, Ian Bell’s best was a splendid sight to behold!
Time to declare an interest here. As a big fan myself, particularly of the red ball game, I’ve had the privilege of watching ‘Belly’ bat live several times for both club and country. I remember fondly, the times he strode to the crease for England and supporters could bet their next bottle of Bollinger that he’d deliver a high-class, high-scoring, innings. (Even when he missed out and went for a rare, low score, he did so with that elegant style that marked him out as a great player.)
His most cherished moments, he says, include being Man of the Series in the 2013 Ashes against Australia where he scored three centuries. Yet by far his greatest memory was being part of an England side which claimed the Ashes down under. As for his life-long club, Ian says he has been “lucky enough to win every trophy there is to win” with Warwickshire. The highlight was scoring 100 and captaining the side to victory with a Man of the Match performance in a Lord’s one-day final.
But this year, time finally caught up with Belly’s body. Although still only 38, the latest in a series of operations which kept him out of action in 2019 “meant I realised this year that I couldn’t physically perform anymore at the level which I wanted and expected to play”. He announced his retirement in September, before his last red ball match against Glamorgan – where he was given a guard of honour by both sets of players and just missed out on a farewell, fairytale century, hitting 90. His final appearance was in a T20 match for Birmingham Bears.
Ian says: “I’ve left playing with no regrets. I’m not emotional about it. I have always tried to stay level-headed through all the highs and lows that happen in a career for any sportsman. I gave everything to the game and I know for sure that each time I played I didn’t leave anything in the tank.”
Ian grew up as a young boy in a sports-mad family, regularly watching Warwickshire play when the likes of the great Brian Lara and Allan Donald graced the Edgbaston pitch. “I played as many sports as possible as a boy.” he says. “But at age 14 I started to realise that I was really good at cricket. I played out of my age group and did well playing against 18-year-olds.” A mere two years later, he made his first team debut for Warwickshire, and the rest is history.
Through his glittering career, Ian played 118 Tests, 161 one-day internationals and eight T20s for England and was part of five Ashes-winning sides. He scored 26 centuries and 81 fifties across all formats for his country. At Warwickshire, he won two County Championship titles, a One-Day Cup and the T20 Blast over 21 years.
“Cricket has been a huge part of my life so yes, of course, I want to stay involved in the game and I’d really love to be involved in coaching somehow,” says Ian. “But what I don’t want is for the likes of Warwickshire to give me a coaching role just because I was an ex-player. I want to be given any coaching role because I have earned it.” Ian was involved in the England Under-19s set-up last year as says he “thoroughly enjoyed” it. There’s also the possibility to get involved potentially in some TV work. “TV isn’t really me but it would be nice to do some bits and pieces,” he says.
“I feel it is important after so many years in cricket to take a bit of a break from Warwickshire and do things which I haven’t been able to do much over the years – like the school run. I’ve been incredibly lucky that my wife, Chantal, has been supportive of my career and been very strong for all of us. As a player, especially as an England player, you are away from home for long periods of time. That can take its toll unless you have a really strong ongoing relationship.”
Retirement could also present Ian with more time to indulge another sporting passion – his love of Aston Villa. “I look forward to spending as much time as I can watching more of the Villa – though the way things are right now with the pandemic, that’ll have to be on TV. It’d be nice though to maybe go to the Villa training ground, do some training and watch how they coach their players. There are always things you can pick up from good coaches in any sport.”
Ian certainly seems to have the right make-up for a coaching role. “I’ve always handled pressure and criticism as a player in a balanced way. One of my strengths is that I am quite resilient and I never take anything personal. I guess I was lucky because during most of my time with England there was no Twitter, so you could only read criticism of you if you looked at a newspaper!”
The final question of our interview was a predictable one, but it had to be asked nonetheless. Who’s the greatest player Ian’s ever played against? Despite facing Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar, it was only at the very end of their careers, says Ian. So, his top pick is Australia’s Ricky Ponting. “I saw him at his best when he was superb batting against people like Andrew Flintoff.”