Nowadays, William Morris is associated with wallpaper and fabric, the stately foliage of middle class homes. Few remember his commitment to revolutionary socialism, best embodied in his novel News from Nowhere, where he imagines life in a post-revolution Arcadia-on-Thames. For Morris, his work, and that of his fellow artists of the Arts and Crafts movement, was a representation of his political ideals: that work had been disconnected from pleasure, and that a link needed to be re-established, drawing inspiration from nature and the joy of craft. Technology need not enslave us; instead they could liberate us to create the useful and the beautiful. For Morris, form and function melded – practicality did not preclude artistic value. In Morris’s utopia, we are all artisans.
When I watch Ian Bell bat, I think of Morris. The pleasure in a Bell innings does not come from how many he scores, or how quickly. Instead it comes from watching someone engage with a craft they have mastered, a skill they are able express beauty through. Bell’s cover drive is the exquisite handiwork of a craftsman. For some, Bell’s elegance is indicative of his position within the England team: a luxury batsman who adds aesthetically without defining games. Yet Bell’s skill is an explicit repudiation of that idea. Watching him, and a select few others, you realise that batting does not need to be defined by either image or results. It can be like Morris’s “work-pleasure”, where the two are mutually dependent, not dichotomous. It would be ludicrous to see a man with fifty first class centuries as uninterested in runs, but Bell’s innings tend to be defined by more than the cold accountancy of runs accrued. Twenty20 has made the batsman’s wicket disposable, creating the throwaway innings; a batsman like Alastair Cook, for all his admirable willpower and ferocious concentration, makes scores, innings defined by their total. Bell’s innings have a crafted longevity, a power to lodge in the memory. In New Age terms, it’s about the journey, not the destination.
The limits of Bell were often revealed in the limited overs formats – that he is England’s highest one day international run scorer reveals more about English shortcomings that Bell’s career. Some players seem to embrace the finite nature of the short formats – MS Dhoni is a masterful calculator of permutations as batsman and captain. Bell, however, seemed limited, rushed. Like a journalist stuck writing business reports, he longed to go gonzo. Bell was at his best when given space to fill, defining games like at Durban in 2009 or Nottingham in 2011. Similarly, he played his part in saving tests at Cape Town in 2010 or Auckland in 2013. His annus mirabilis of 2013, where he made three match-deciding hundreds in the Ashes, was a classic example of Bell, with time and space available to define a match, crafting innings of the highest quality, both in terms of aesthetics and team success. He did not embrace the challenge of the situations in the manner of a Steve Waugh-type figure, revelling in difficulty. Rather, he transcended it, fashioned innings with his usual elegance, free from constraints of time. A test match is a broad canvas, and Bell, batsman as artist has the ability to fill it.
Bell’s batting has an easy beauty, the classical technique of the coaching manual. It is not the spiky flair of a Pietersen, or the languid economy of a Gower. He even gets out in approved ways, bowled top of off or caught behind. Rod Marsh famously labelled him a “good nicker” – et in Arcadia ego. Dismissal is the problem for any batsman trying to craft an innings, hence defence is as much part the art as attack. Whilst Bell’s elegance is not challenging to appreciate, he does pose interesting and difficult questions about what we want from sport. To reverse the old cliché, is it how, not how many? Is a cover drive out of context enough, valuable for its aesthetics alone? Perhaps – it lifts the sport out of jingoism and competitiveness – but it’s no way to judge a batsman’s quality. Moreover, here we can return to Morris. Functionality and aesthetics need not be separate. David Foster Wallace, writing about Roger Federer, spoke about the “kinetic beauty” of a high-quality sportsperson, combining sporting success with the graceful control of the human body. Bell’s batting is the honed skill of an artisan, dedication to the perfection of form and function. Inevitably, his striving will sometimes fall short, his run production will be less prolific than the mechanised technique of a Cook or Tendulkar. But in an age of data and the disposable, we should be thankful for Bell’s dedication to Arts and Crafts batting, match-winning scores compiled with care and flair