EXCLUSIVE: Nobody was quicker than the Rawalpindi express! IAN BELL on trying to keep out Shoaib Akhtar's 100mph yorkers and why free-flowing England will have to fight for runs in Pakistan
Ian Bell knows better than most about the challenges of batting in Pakistan after being part of the celebrated 2005 England side beaten by a potent mix of searing pace and fizzing spin.
‘I have a vivid memory of an amazing swinging yorker from Shoaib Akhtar to Ashley Giles that knocked out middle and leg stump,’ Bell tells Sportsmail.
‘Even now when people ask me who is the quickest bowler I have faced, that’s the series that comes to mind. Shoaib’s bowling was the quickest I have ever witnessed or experienced.’
England had landed in Pakistan on the back of a run of six straight series victories, including the biggest scalp of all — Australia.
After winning every home Test in 2004 and defeating South Africa in a five-Test series, reclaiming the Ashes had elevated their status to new heights.
The squad was still in celebratory mood as they headed to Pakistan at the end of October for three Tests. Two weeks were spent preparing in Rawalpindi and Lahore, and Duncan Fletcher’s men reached Multan for the first Test fancying their chances.
Michael Vaughan was out injured, so Marcus Trescothick — back in Pakistan now as England’s batting coach — stood in as skipper and smashed 193 to help the tourists secure a large first-innings advantage.
England had only won two Tests in Pakistan and they sensed history, beginning the final day needing 174 more, with nine wickets in hand. But when Bell was caught behind, it sparked a stunning collapse inspired by Shoaib — whose bowling had been measured at 100mph — and Danish Kaneria. England fell from 64 for one to 175 all out and lost by 22 runs.
For Bell, who was 23 at the time, the series was important. He had been part of the Ashes squad but averaged just 17 in the series. And after finishing with a pair at the Oval, he had arrived in Pakistan desperate to prove himself.
‘That was a massive tour because the 2005 Ashes was a great series for everyone but I didn’t really score a good volume of runs,’ he says. ‘In terms of my development kicking on, Pakistan was the one.
‘Even though we lost, I’ve got good memories. The wickets were incredible.
‘It’s a great place to bat if you can get in. Whereas India is very spin-dominated, you need bowlers who can extract reverse swing in Pakistan.’
Bell scored his first overseas Test century in the next match on his way to becoming England’s top scorer in the series. But he believes runs will not come so easily for free-flowing England in Pakistan now. His 115 came in a seven-hour knock that featured just seven boundaries.
‘You had to work so hard to get in but I felt that once you were in, you were in control,’ he says. ‘That’s why they will reverse it in the middle overs and I’m sure the lads know what’s coming.
‘Pakistan have an amazing skill set when it comes to reversing the ball. It will be fascinating to see how the guys get on and adapt the brand of cricket they played this summer, not just absorb the pressure but try to put it back on them.’
England were set a victory target of 285 on the final day of the second Test in Faisalabad, and were 20 for four shortly after lunch before escaping with a draw thanks to Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff.
In the final Test in Lahore, any hope of a win to level the series evaporated when Pakistan declared on 636 for eight in reply to England’s 288. At 201 for two at lunch on the final day, England looked set for a draw. Step forward Shoaib and Kaneria again. In 16 deliveries, the tourists capitulated from 205 for two to 212 for six and the last rites were read shortly after.
Bell was on 92 when he was dispatched by one of the balls of the series from Shoaib — a slower delivery, of all things, from the Rawalpindi Express.
‘Shoaib bowled serious pace throughout but he varied things so well. He just kept on coming. He was on fire,’ says Bell.
The 40-year-old, who has spent the past few months working with England Lions in the UAE, expects Pakistan to pose a serious challenge to England over the next few weeks.
‘It’s going to be a thrilling series,’ he says. ‘I know the lads are excited. It’s a shame Shaheen Afridi isn’t fit but the depth of pace bowling is there in Pakistan. You only have to watch the PSL to see it. That 2005 series was a great education for me as a young player and I’m sure it will be the same for the lads out there.’