This month, Club Matters sat down with one of the most successful English cricketers of his generation, Warwickshire batsman Ian Bell, who played 118 Tests and 161 One Day Internationals for England. The five-time Ashes winner told us about his early days in cricket, the enthusiasm of his coaches, and how he’s enjoying giving back to the game coaching youngsters as he approaches the back end of his career.
Club Matters: How old were you when you joined your first cricket club and what was it called?
Ian Bell: I can’t remember exactly how old I was but the first club I went to was when my dad was playing at the weekend, at Dunchurch cricket club, which is just up the road. My brother and I would play cricket on the side so that was my earliest memory of cricket. I first properly got involved with a club side was when I was about 9 years old, I remember going to Coventry & North Warwickshire which was the nearest Birmingham League side, which was the best league near where we were, and had a fantastic new set up at the time. So that was my first introduction to youth cricket - my brother and I went all the way through the age groups there.
What do you remember most about the club?
I was very lucky. At the time we had a very strong side from under 11’s, and we all moved through together up to the 14’s, 15’s and 19’s. But we were very lucky, it was a Birmingham League club and that was the top premier league in the area, so from top to bottom – men’s cricket all the way down to the juniors – it was a good set up. There were always Warwickshire affiliated players at the club as well, so you could go down and watch the first team. We were lucky to have some good coaches and people who spent a lot of time making sure the junior set up was right. My brother and I benefitted from that quite nicely, and also the fact that the youth teams had a close attachment to Warwickshire as well. So, going to trials, then under 11’s and 12’s came off the back of the coaching and the things I did with Coventry & North Warwickshire.
Tell us about the coaches at Coventry & North Warwickshire?
There’s a couple of guys that are still there now actually. A guy called Dave Robinson, who I remember used to organise a lot of the youth cricket, is still there now. I think during that period, and certainly with that generation, we had quite a strong age group and a good side all the way through, so I’ve got a lot of fond memories of how I started in grassroots cricket and going through which hopefully, in a way, played a massive part in where I got to with my career.
How important do you think it is to have people like Dave to give up their time and help bring through young athletes?
It’s hugely important. I look back on my career and there’s a number of people who I’d thank for this. When I got my first test cap, you get the excitement of achieving your goal and your dream, but you remember the sacrifices that people made in terms of getting you around the country to games, driving you around. You need a lot of support – not just from the coaches but from everyone, including your family. I look back on my cricket life, and I was very lucky to have some good people who gave up their time to benefit myself and my friends so that we could go on and enjoy the game, as the enthusiasm they have for the game rubs off on the young guys that they’re coaching. That was an important aspect of it - as well as all the skills, just the pure enjoyment of playing cricket.
How important is it that coaches love the game? Does that help make young people enthusiastic about sport?
Exactly, that’s what a lot of it is when getting into the professional route. When you look right back to the start, you want as many kids playing cricket and having fun, enjoying it. I met a lot of good people through cricket and that was not just about how good you are but it’s a game that should be enjoyed. You go out there as a team and there’s a lot of things that you learn through cricket that you can add in to parts of your life as well.
What are your favourite memories of playing when you were younger?
At under 11 level, we got to play on the main ground, often in the morning before a big Premier League game. I suppose my best memories were the opportunities we got to bat and bowl and do as much as you could. I can still envisage how we used to play, with 16 over games batting for 4 overs in a pair and bowling a couple of overs. I can remember right back to how it was at the start and how well it was organised. Everyone had their part to play in the game and it was really enjoyable. I suppose there’s two parts to it; I was lucky to grow up in the area that I did. Warwickshire were a very successful county at the time and we had the likes of Allan Donald and Brian Lara there as overseas players, so to go and watch them, at my age, captured my imagination. Warwickshire did the treble in 1994 and the double in 95, so that kind of stuff, alongside having a good environment to play in, are the reasons to why I love the game and why I wanted to go on and play cricket for a living.
Is volunteering your time and coaching kids something that you really enjoy doing?
I’ve actually just become an ambassador for a coaching company called “Complete Cricket” in Solihull. So, I’m doing a lot of work with those guys and it’s really refreshing and enjoyable to actually start doing a bit more of that with kids with all different abilities and seeing how much fun it was when you were a kid. Sometimes, when you are in the professional game and it’s your job you kind of lose sight of why you play the game in the first place. Having now gone back into doing some work with these guys and doing some coaching sessions with kids from all different age groups and abilities, you see that they are there because they love the game and love playing cricket. So, it’s all been very refreshing for me to see and start doing a bit more of this, now I’m at the back end of my career, and hopefully I’ll continue working with these guys in the years to come. Hopefully along the way, there’ll be some kids that will come through that set up and will go on to play for Warwickshire and England like I did.
Do you have any message that you’d like to give to the volunteers who help all the sports clubs up and down the country?
I reckon every professional player right to the top would thank them, right up to Joe Root as England captain. I don’t think you could get there without people giving their time and helping young guys and girls. Being a parent now as well, you’re limited to the amount of time you have, so you need volunteers and everyone helping. I suppose it’s the love of the game – if you can get young guys and girls playing early in their lives, that’s where you really start to love the game. A coach also has a massive part to play, being enthusiastic and pushing their messages across. Hopefully youth cricket continues and keeps going strong. From my own experience, I was very lucky to be at the right place at the right time with some really good people which, no doubt, helped capture my imagination of why I wanted to play the game and why I loved the game of cricket.