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November 25, 2006
It's been men against boys, and yet, remarkably, one of the most boyish figures on the pitch has emerged as an unexpected hero. Ian Bell is not a man whose demeanour inspires confidence - diffidence is his default setting, and memorably it was his undoing in the 2005 Ashes, as he slumped to seven single-figure scores in 10 innings, including a pair in the series decider at The Oval.
Today, however, he was a solitary beacon of hope in an otherwise dismal batting display. In fact, he was to England's batting what Andrew Flintoff had been to their bowling on days one and two, and it's not often that those two characters can have been likened to one another. He was disciplined, determined, and skilfully certain of his right to demand control of such a high-profile and high-stakes contest. Without him, England's humiliation would have known no limits.
Okay, so he made just 50 runs, which is barely a fifth of the total that Australia's No. 3, Ricky Ponting, has so far racked up in this match. But it is 50 more than he managed in that last Ashes outing - an experience which, it was suggested at the time, looked likely to destroy him. Instead it might just have been his making.
Body language was Bell's biggest failing in his previous incarnation as a Test cricketer. He simply lacked the presence to compete with the likes of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, and all too often he was beaten before he reached the middle of the pitch. But it's a different story now, and even McGrath was moved to admit as much. "In the last Ashes series we probably felt we had it over him," he said at the close, "but obviously he's come along well, and he looks a lot more confident out there, especially against Shane."
Bell's hunger for runs is well documented. After his first three Tests against West Indies and Bangladesh he was averaging 297, and against his favourite opponents, Pakistan, he has racked up four hundreds in seven Tests, including three in a row in last summer's home series. But the suspicion remained that he was something of a flat-atmosphere bully, all too happy to cash in when the going was good. Today's innings, in the roughest of rough circumstances, might have silenced the doubters a touch. Insofar as the doubters can be silenced in such a miserable team performance as this.
There was little sign of his new confidence as Bell faced the press corps this evening, but then he was discussing issues way beyond his control. Not even Kevin Pietersen could have put a positive spin on England's desperate situation, as Bell pontificated about Ponting's unusual decision and patted out the platitudes - "It's always going to be a battle against Australia when their tails are up." But with a bat in his hand, he has become a different proposition to the one that the Aussies had envisaged when this series began.
It is too early to eulogise Bell as the saviour of England's series, but on a day when the size of their task was so starkly demonstrated, his efforts were a sizeable crumb of comfort. Barring a dramatic end to Queensland's six-year drought, the teams will reconvene at Adelaide next week with Australia 1-0 up and with one finger wrapped firmly round the base of the Ashes. Pyrrhic victories are all England have left to deal in.
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