“Challenge yourself, but play for the love of the game,” was Ashes legend Ian Bell’s advice to West Midlands youngsters as England toiled down under.
And, in an interview with the Observer, the five-times Ashes-winning superstar and Warwickshire batsman admitted it was “strange” not to be part of the action in Australia, facing hostile 90mph bowling and 90,000 crowds.
The 35-year-old Ian Bell MBE – who was born in Coventry and grew up in Dunchurch – spoke while coaching aspiring future Ashes hopefuls during a community initiative by West Midlands and Warwickshire-based organisation Complete Cricket.
Its head coach David Smith says: “Our aim is to try and create not just a love of the game, but boys and girls that go on to play for Warwickshire and England. For them to learn from a legend of the game is a unique opportunity.”
It follows an alarming 26 per cent fall in monthly adult cricket participation over a decade, from 380,300 to 278,600 in 2015/6 (Sport England figures). The game is sentimentally considered ‘quintessentially English’ and integral to the national psyche, but is a bigger deal in India and Austrailia.
In 2005, “Ashes fever”, a series in which Bell took part, swept the country and sparked a fleeting renaissance, with impromptu games springing up in seemingly every park.
Today, Bell is clear about where the path to renewed resurgence begins, amid a heavily promoted new England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) scheme targeting children as young as five, called All Stars Cricket.
Speaking with 10 to 14 year olds at Solihull College, he said: “Enjoy every minute of it. Being a cricketer is a fun life. It’s about having fun with your mates. Challenge yourself but have fun too.”
The former Princethorpe schoolboy adds: “I was 13 or 14 when I wanted to be a cricketer. Warwickshire was a successful side when I was growing up. My mum and dad took me to a Lord’s final.
“I wasn’t very good at football,” he says, despite attending Coventry City’s youth centre of excellence.
Having last year captained Warwickshire to a one-day cup victory at the ‘home of cricket’ Lord’s, where the original ‘Ashes urn’ permanently resides, Bell remains a tangible inspiration for those born after that great Ashes home series 12 years ago.
Will Gilbert, 11, from Shirley, recently saw Bell play against Lancashire while Dan King, 10, from Dorridge, says: “I’ve seen him play live in the T20 finals.”
Asked if he’d spotted any budding Ian Bells or Joe Roots, Bell told us: “There’s a few, yes. It’s nice to come here and see kids of that age that want to play cricket and there’s a lot of talented players here. The guys at Complete Cricket do a fantastic job.
“It’s nice to try and pass on information and I’ve always tried to be a decent role model as a Warwickshire player.”
He says such youth development work is “really important” for increasing participation, adding: “We are fighting in this country with football which is obviously massive.
“It’s great to see kids that love the game, which is nice as a professional, because it takes you back to where you started out. it’s nice to remind yourself of why you play the game in the first place.”
Asked what more was needed to rejuvenate the game, he says: “When we won the Ashes in 2005 it was on terrestrial television.
“You can’t fault the money that comes in from Sky and BT. But in Australia, they have the Test Match, the Big Bash (the franchise T20 short form of the game in which Bell successfully appeared earlier this year for Perth Scorchers) all on terrestrial television. Their access to seeing their heroes and superstars is in every house in the country.
“With T20 franchise cricket coming into this country eventually (planned for 2020), that will help, when hopefully you can rely on not just England but a domestic format to sell out stadiums. The guys here will hopefully go to Edgbaston and see four or five world-class players on a regular basis through a franchise tournament.
“Cricket’s the number-one sport in Australia and India, that’s what you’re fighting against. We’re fighting against football and rugby but there’s a fantastic job being done at the grassroots level by Complete Cricket here, nurturing, encouraging and making guys enjoy cricket, so hopefully we’ll see future Joe Roots coming though.”
Asked if it was getting more difficult to equally enthuse youngsters over practising a traditional trademark Ian Bell cover drive, as opposed to a T20-style scoop or slog sweep, he said: “Coaching is getting more complicated. There are three formats to play now.
“When I grew up, you worked very hard at the longer format of the game and you adjusted to one-day cricket. Now some kids growing up maybe don’t want to play test cricket but T20 cricket. As a coach you have to be flexible and find out the strength of the youngster you are working with.
“You have to go with it. Test cricket was the pinnacle when I was growing up, but that’s not the case anymore. People can play T20 cricket for ten years now and make a career out of it. As a youngster there’s more options and that’s really exciting.
“T20 is a great way in, and the ECB have to look after Test cricket. Watching the Ashes has made me excited again watching test cricket. We have to look after the Ashes and make sure it is the pinnacle of people’s careers.”
Asked if he was missing it, he says: “I’m doing a bit of media work on it in this country and it’s been fascinating to watch.
“In a way it’s been strange because it’s the first Ashes series I haven’t been involved in since 2005. But it’s nice to be home with a young family and watching it from a distance.”