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While England displayed all the traits of a world-beating outfit at Trent Bridge, Ian Bell played what was arguably his best innings at the highest level, the run-out controversy notwithstanding
July 31, 2011
If England go on and secure the world No. 1 ranking, which is now looking increasingly likely, this could be the day where the baton was handed over. There are moments when a team just looks at the top of their game. The final day at Lord's was one and this time, controversy aside, it was the England batsmen - some out of position - who played with the aggression, flair and confidence that is the hallmark of the best.
Leading it all was Ian Bell. Moved back up to No. 3 due to Jonathan Trott's shoulder injury he responded with his most commanding Test century and first in that position. It felt like the coming of age for someone who has always had the technical game for Test cricket but question-marks hanging over his mental ability.
In truth those questions have been answered emphatically over the last 18 months where, firstly at No. 6 then at No. 5 following Paul Collingwood's retirement, he has become England's middle-order banker. He has given the batting line-up solidity and style. So to say this hundred was career-defining does a disservice to some of his other innings in recent times.
"I'd really not thought about it being a hundred at No. 3 until I'd come off having just moved up through injury," he said. "It was nice to score a hundred in this situation regardless of whether it's three or five, under a bit of pressure with us wanting to get back into the game and it's right up there with hundreds I've scored."
Bell often singles out the match-saving 78 he made in Cape Town in early 2010, against Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, as the moment he knew he had cracked the Test game. That followed a fine century in the previous Test in Durban when his place had been on the line following a string of failed promises with the bat. He has shown, like many others in this team, that a bit of well-placed belief from the management can go a long way.
Yet, this innings did feel different. It was the most dominant display in a game where runs have been at a premium. Rahul Dravid's hundred was a supreme effort, but he had to graft for long periods; VVS Laxman shone but was cut short after fifty and Yuvraj Singh sparkled but wasn't convincing against pace. Bell's was a complete Test innings.
He hit his stride early and never looked back. A mark of how well he played was that at the start of the day the suggestion was that Bell would have to make 'ugly' runs and the innings would test someone known for his elegant batting. However, Bell didn't even need to get ugly. The pitch was easier, but it was still one where the bowlers should have had an edge. The way Praveen Kumar made one bounce from a good length, for the second time in the match, to remove Jonathan Trott showed that.
It makes it a greater shame, therefore, that the innings will always come with a footnote about his run-out-turned-reinstatement at tea. Bell admitted he was "naïve" in how he put himself into the situation, but hoped it won't be why people talk about his innings in years to come. Considering he had 137 when the controversy erupted it isn't an unreasonable thought.
"I've got to take some blame, it was a bit stupid," he said. "But no doubt, I think it was one of the best innings I've played. I really admire this India team, they are ranked No. 1 and have some world-class players, and it's a massive contest. It would be nice if the innings could be remembered for being a good hundred against a very good team and something that's helping us set up a Test."
He has certainly put England in a wonderful position. Today they carved 417 runs in 90 overs - research suggests it's the first time they have scored more than 400 in a day since Edgbaston 2005 - and even taking into account Harbhajan Singh's stomach injury, which left India a bowler down for the second Test running, it was a staggering way to take hold of what had until then been a nip-and-tuck contest. India's batting is good enough to still make a game of it, but there were signs that England had landed some telling psychological blows especially during the final session which yielded 187 runs.
On the first two days the impact of the respective lower-orders was highlighted for their potential significance in the Test (and series). When Trott, batting at No. 7 due to his injury, was caught at slip the lead was 272. If India could have done a similar demolition job that England, or rather Stuart Broad, managed on the second evening they could have been chasing under 320. Tough, but not impossible.
Instead they now have the prospect of something well over 400 where the previous best on the ground is 284 for 6. Matt Prior plundered an unbeaten 64 off 55 balls against a weary attack, and his impact on England is becoming more Gilchrist-esque by the innings.
"The way KP played, Morgan, and then Matt Prior and Bresnan at the end, there's so much pressure on the bowlers," Bell said. "When you've been in the field a long time and you see those guys coming out to play the way they did, it's tough. Prior was exceptional and is probably the worst bloke in world cricket to see walking in when you've been fielding for 90 overs."
On the opening two days England clung on by fighting back in the last session, but the strongest teams know when a match is there for the taking. Their current opponents are trying desperately to cling onto their No. 1 tag but the challengers are looking primed to make their move.
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