Ian Bell finds his role as evolution continues
Those who appreciate the subtleties of Test-match cricket will be able to look beyond the ironies that abounded in Ian Bell's tenth Test century, and appreciate his performance for what it truly was - an excellent feat of endurance in oppressive subcontinental conditions, and a continuation of a coming-of-age process that began in the Ashes decider at The Oval last August.
The naysayers, on the other hand, will grumble that his innings was just bloody typical of a man with a reputation of milking soft runs from weak opponents. Until the moment of his dismissal in the final hour of the day, he was averaging the small matter of 488 against Bangladesh, and the only other time he'd got out was while batting for the declaration at Chittagong. When he bats like this at Brisbane, maybe then they'll consider a reassessment.
But those who witnessed his innings in the sparse environs of Mirpur felt a strange and unnerving sensation as Bell strode to the wicket shortly after tea on the second day, with England tottering on 107 for 3 in reply to 419, and with their regular man for a crisis, Paul Collingwood, heading in the opposite direction for a duck. With his quick but calm footwork, and a deft leave outside off, Bell brought with him an assurance that everything was under control.
Somewhere, somehow, in the space of a single winter, the man once derided as "The Shermanator" by Shane Warne has shed the self-doubt that crippled his temperament for so long, and begun to become the player that his impeccable technique always promised he could be.
"Within myself, at the minute, I feel confident, and I've put a few things to bed that I needed to," said Bell. "Looking back over my career, I haven't backed up my performances time after time after time, so it's nice to be able to do that now, but I'm desperate to keep improving because I don't want to stop here."
The process of fulfilment began with one final nadir, at Centurion at the start of the South Africa tour, when Bell was widely lampooned for shouldering arms to a straight delivery from Paul Harris. He went into the subsequent Test at Durban with his neck on the line, but he responded with a perfect century from No. 6, an up-tempo declaration-chaser to set up an innings win, only to trump that performance with a four-and-three-quarter-hour rearguard at Cape Town.
Though Bell again left the door ajar for the doubters by falling in the fraught final overs of that contest, the match was nonetheless saved by Graham Onions, and Bell was rightly showered with the sort of plaudits that had never before come his way. "South Africa was massive for me," he said. "The Cape Town Test has given me a lot of confidence to move on with the rest of my career."
And so to the follow-up, a face-saver in Bangladesh. Had it not been for England's inadequacies on the opening two days, Bell's tenth Test century might well have been worthy of some gentle ribbing within the dressing-room, but instead his team-mates ought to be prostrate with gratitude. As was the case with Inzamam-ul-Haq at Multan, or Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist at Fatullah, there are occasions in Bangladesh Tests when context is everything - and had Bell fallen cheaply (or had a few decisions gone Bangladesh's way) England really would have been in strife.
"Bangladesh have batted fantastically well and they've bowled tidily on a good wicket," he said. "It felt like a proper Test match on the subcontinent, with good grafting cricket where we had to play well. This morning waking up, we knew we had to go out and perform or else we'd have been under some serious pressure."
As it was, Bell came as close as he has ever done to flying solo in a Test match innings, and whether you're piloting a Boeing 747 or a microlight, that's still an occasion to be noted. For the first time in his career, he made it to three figures without a team-mate getting there first, although with Tim Bresnan unbeaten on 74 overnight, there's still time for him to be joined in three figures.
"It was nice to make a contribution when it was needed, but I hope Bressy can go on tomorrow morning and keep that stat. I can't see it as being unfair, because a stat is a stat, but it's something I believed I could put it to bed if I kept working hard. I knew going out there that, out of our top order, one of us had to get a hundred, so it was nice to put an innings together in these conditions."
Bell's centuries anomaly is a spurious statistic, maybe, but a pertinent one, because it underlines the suspicion that he is a follower of men, rather than a leader. For most of his career that aspect has been treated as a character flaw, when in truth it is merely his character, full stop. Bell is simply happiest in an innings when he's left to play his own game, and that is a trait that the England management appear finally to have embraced, rather than shunned.
When the decision was made to drop Michael Carberry and shunt Jonathan Trott up to open, the easy solution would have been to return Bell to No. 3, a position he still claims to covet. Instead the tougher alternative was chosen, and for the first time in a tremendously reluctant career, Kevin Pietersen was shoved up the order to fill the vacancy.
The implication was clear. Bell's run-harvesting ability in the middle-order is now seen as a genuine asset. Whether he comes to the wicket at 5 for 3, 50 for 3 or 500 for 3, the context of the innings has already been established, in the way that it rarely is at first-drop. And if that means the doubters remain on his case for a while longer, well, there's always Brisbane to come...
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo. Go to http://twitter.com/miller_cricket to follow him on Twitter through the England tour of Bangladesh.