At the Pride of Britain awards, celebrities lined up to meet Ian Bell, who later asked his agent: "How do all these people know who I am?" The man of this summer's Ashes series, and newly cast as middle-order gladiator, Bell was unprepared for adulation. Modesty has been a running theme of the marvellously graceful Bell's batting career, which reached new heights with his three centuries against Australia, at Trent Bridge, Lord's and Durham.
England flew off for the return series on Wednesday with Bell no longer accused of being an artiste who scored centuries only when men further up the order had scored them first. Now, he says, "ugly" runs are as welcome as beautiful ones. Contentment still radiates from Bell as we talk at Edgbaston, his county home with Warwickshire, about his honeyed summer, which yielded 562 runs and his 18th, 19th and 20th Test centuries.
"As a kid growing up the one thing that sticks in your mind is that you see 'Botham's Ashes'. You want to win man of the series in the Ashes. That's one of the dreams, isn't it?" he says. "In Botham's time we went through quite a poor run against Australia, and when I got my chance against a very good Australia side it was a bit of a baptism. So to have come through that now, and have that kind of series you dream of, is really nice."
As England slogged through an Ashes series unbeaten for the first time since 1977, Bell achieved something quite inspiring, and moving, and instructive for players who are dismissed too soon as psychologically susceptible to pressure. He is the Everyman for gifted batsmen who are eaten up by the brutality of international cricket. He was already a top English batsman before this summer, of course, but he heads south now as one of the tough nuts of Andy Flower's team. He tells the story with delight: "Going into the series I felt I was playing quite nicely," he starts out.
"But I got a lot of thirties, forties against New Zealand, without getting that real big score. So I probably felt a little bit itchy going into the series, thinking: 'I could do with a big score'. "Two or three days before the first Test we were at Loughborough and something clicked in the nets that I'd been working on. I had a bad habit from one-day cricket that I'd slipped into. In the nets I just started to time the ball that bit better, which meant I went into the Trent Bridge Test with that extra confidence, feeling: something's just clicked at the right time.
"I got 25 in the first innings in quite good bowling conditions for Australia, but actually felt I left and played really well. Although it was only 25 I felt it was the best I'd played all summer." A second-innings knock of 109 preceded scores of 109 and 74 at Lord's and suddenly Bell was England's middle-order saviour. "To get a hundred against Australia at Lord's is the one you're going to remember for the rest of your life. To get on the honours board at Lord's, it's going to stay there forever," he says.
"But the best one for me personally was Durham [in the fourth Test], on that kind of wicket where it was particularly low scoring. To score a hundred in those conditions and give our bowlers the opportunity to win the game from that position was probably the best one, I would think. The way Broady bowled in that match was incredible." So let us amble back to the problem years, the summers of doubt, which were ended by Flower's tough love in dropping him. "I was always criticised early in my career for not playing those kind of innings," Bell agrees.
"So to have a series where I did it not just once but three times is very satisfying - to be able to say, I put my hand up when we really needed it, against Australia. Big series, under pressure. "After 2009 when I got dropped in the West Indies, I started to work out a few things to go with my ability, which helped me work under pressure. Physical stuff. I wouldn't say I was lazy, but it's an area that Andy felt when he came into the English game there was potential for us as a group to get a lot fitter.
"When you walk out into the middle as a fit group the opposition takes a bit of notice. Also there is mental strength that goes with putting yourself under pressure in the gym, working hard. It can only give you confidence then, going in to bat. That was something I had to go away and work on. I think I was guilty, probably, of being a young player who relied a bit on talent, and maybe didn't work as hard as I could have done in the gym. To get fitter allowed that ability to come out. It was a hurdle I had to get over to help me become a tougher person and a tougher cricketer.
"I may not have played for England again if I'd gone off and enjoyed myself [during the West Indies tour]. I felt the opportunity I had there was: 1, get as fit as I could and; 2, Hit the ground running back at Warwickshire. It was an Ashes summer and the only thing I could wish for as the next guy in line was to score as many runs as possible for Warwickshire. In the first game back I scored 180 at Taunton against Somerset. So it was worth the work I did."
Not lost, in all this bench-pressing and grimacing, was Bell's artistic repertoire, which, he says, means less to him than before: "Early in my career it was always, 'He looks nice, he plays well'. You always search for that perfect innings. But the more I've played the less I've searched. I take more satisfaction now from playing a really tough innings. I don't care where the runs come from, it's just how many. "Graham Gooch always says it's how many. I take more satisfaction now from ugly runs than I did early in my career. I was always trying to make it look nice. It can look nice for 20, but I'd rather it looked ugly for a hundred. That's where I am now. I'm going out to scrap in the middle. These days I'd take an outside edge for four. It doesn't really matter."
Bell averaged 40.59 in Test cricket when he was dropped and more than 50 after his return. "I've worked hard on my technique. But at the highest level it's not all about technique," he says. "Ability will get you so far but there's a lot more to go with it. The mental side. You've seen a lot of players who've had less ability than others but they've got a lot more out of themselves."
There is no reluctance to admit that verbal maulings left an imprint: "I just don't think I was ready for it early on. You walk out into the middle and it was a bit of a shock. That's probably bad on my part. I spent a lot of time working on technique, technique, technique, rather than the mental side. Now we do a lot of preparation, trying to make sure you've thought of any situation that can happen, so you're not surprised by anything. We do a lot of prep on specific bowlers, whether they swing it out, whether they swing it in, so you're not surprised.
With the mental side you have to do exactly the same. "In the early days I wasn't prepared for whether they were going to come very aggressive, whether they weren't going to say anything. I didn't have any methods to deal with it. In the last couple of Ashes I've had a method for dealing with whatever was said." He has no method still, though, for dealing with celebs who come up to him at dinners and congratulate him for showing us that artists can be fighters too.