By Amlan Chakraborty
REUTERS - Ian Bell has come a long way since notorious sledger Shane Warne first likened him to the red-haired nerd from the comedy film American Pie, and with Australia facing the prospect of a fourth successive Ashes defeat it is the England batsman who could be having the last laugh.
Bell's early susceptibility to spin bowling at one stage threatened to derail his career and leave him in the bin marked "unfulfilled potential", and Warne could not resist having a dig during England's ill-fated 2006-7 Ashes tour.
"You don't like being called The Sherminator do you?" the stump microphone caught the Australian spin great as saying.
"I've been called worse," was Bell's reply.
But since Warne quit the game and retreated to the commentary box, Bell has gone from strength to strength and could well be the first cricketer to retain the Compton-Miller medal as Player of the Series.
The 31-year-old was the difference between the sides in England's 3-0 Ashes victory at home earlier this year, hitting centuries in their three unanswered victories at Trent Bridge, Lord's and Chester-le-Street.
"Looking back when I've finished, to be the man of the series and win the Miller-Compton award, I think will be one of the best things I've ever done in my career," the 93-test veteran said.
He wasted precious little time hitting his straps on his third Ashes tour of Australia, his 115 in the Perth warm-up match suggesting he was preparing to torment Australia again.
Speaking before the rivalry is renewed in Brisbane on November 21, Bell was taking nothing for granted.
"Whether I had a bad series last one or a good one, it's all gone in the past now," Bell, who averages 46.66 in tests, said in Sydney last week.
"Now is not the time to look at that. We've got five big test matches coming up and we want to win them and that's the important thing for me, not what's happened in the past."
Equipped with a sound technique, Bell has sorted out his problems with deliveries outside off-stump and knows which balls to leave, a sign of a sure-footed batsman who trusts his craft.
He may lack the flamboyance of team mate Kevin Pietersen but Bell is a purist's delight. He is one of the better timers of the ball and can also use the bottom hand to good effect to clear the rope when situation demands.
Furthermore, he has complemented his technique with a never-say-die attitude that was in full display in Ashes this year as he repeatedly bailed England out of top order crises.
Should it happen again, the middle order firefighter will be looking for a helping hand from youngsters like Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow.
His own difficulties early in his career make him something on an expert on the development of younger test players but he knows that they will have to learn the lessons for themselves.
"The only way to learn about Ashes cricket is to get involved in one," Bell added.
"You can get a lot of advice from people beforehand but, until you've gone through it, the feelings and the pressure, it's difficult to learn from that.
"So these guys, our young players, will be a lot better players for what they've just gone through and also being involved in a winning side is a good thing as well."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)