Big-game Belly achieves his finest hour
Forget the nine Test hundreds. Ian Bell has just played his defining international innings. For not far short of five hours he defied South Africa to take England to the brink of a draw that can rank right up with their finest. However, for 17 gut-wrenching deliveries Bell could only sit in the dressing-room fearing the worst. All the concentration, the self restraint, the focus; it could have all come to nothing.
That would have been cruelly unfair for Bell, but when he poked at Morne Morkel's first ball of the ante-penultimate over and watched Graeme Smith snaffle the catch at slip, it appeared for all the world that his 213-ball resistance would be remembered in a losing cause. Surely England couldn't pull off their third last-wicket escape in eight Tests, and their second in the space of three weeks?
At Centurion there were 19 balls remaining when Graham Onions joined Paul Collingwood - who produced another masterful rearguard on this occasion - so really they should have been confident. Cricket, though, rarely throws up endings so similar in such a short space of time. "I was thinking we're in this situation again, and it's not often the end of the story is the same," admitted Andrew Strauss.
Once again Onions was left with the final over to face although this time it was from Morkel, not Makhaya Ntini. The crowd stood. Some cheered, others couldn't watch. A few were close to tears; they were probably English which is ironic given that their team was saved by a man named Onions. He kept out two pinpoint yorkers, managed to avoid a searing bouncer that clipped the shirt - and went to review just to add to the drama - before coolly leaving the final ball outside off. Bell could finally look up. It had all been worth it.
This wasn't quite Mike Atherton at Johannesburg for England, but it can certainly add another chapter to the increasingly large book of great escapes. Atherton's unbeaten 185 in December 1995 defined his career, and although Bell's 78 is a considerably smaller contribution in terms of pure runs, it has the power to stand as the same sort of iconic performance.
It's what Bell has desperately needed to do for his country. Even after his serene 140 at Durban, which played a major role in setting up the innings-and-98-run victory, there were still doubters who questioned whether he'd have produced such an effort without a hefty platform to build upon. The naysayers were given a further chance to vent their views when he gave away his battling first-innings 48 by slapping a long hop to point. This, however, was a mighty effort and can provide a springboard into the next stage of his career.
"Belly has wanted to play an innings like that for England for a very long time," said Strauss. "Today he did it, and did it exceptionally well. He was fully in control of his game right the way through until he got out at the end.
"He was desperate to play an innings like that, and it wasn't just the fact that he did it - it was the way he did it that I thought was exceptional. He was very much in control of his game and emotions, and the bat looked like a barn door until the moment he got out."
There are those who will feel Collingwood isn't getting his dues here. He was also magnificent, but then that is nothing new from Collingwood. He fought through the final day at Cardiff with a heroic 74 - and, like Bell here, feared it wouldn't save the day - and in the first Test of this series guided a panicked England to a draw with 26 off 99 balls. This was yet another situation made for Collingwood, the same, however, has never been said for Bell. Until now that is.
"We've seen Colly do that quite a few times recently, and he found a very worthy ally in Ian Bell," said Strauss. "There are a lot of characters in our side, and we have a great ability and willingness to fight. When you see other guys doing it, you want to be one of those guys the next time."
When Bell left a straight ball from Paul Harris in the first innings at Centurion, his confidence appeared shot to pieces and he was part of England's final-day collapse that almost lost them the match. Who knows what would have had happened if the squad had included a reserve specialist batsman, and another failure at Durban would have made his position almost untenable. He had to respond, but this response was beyond expectations.
For years there has been a desire for Bell to show what he is really made of. The talent, bucket-loads of it, has always been there, which is what has made the indeterminate, weak periods of his career so frustrating. If, at long last, this is the real Ian Bell then it's an arrival that might yet be worth the wait.
Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo