Bell's Oval opera
In an England line-up dominated by boyish "Daddy" scorers and Ferrari-driving rock stars, Ian Bell struck one for the regular guys this summer. He spent eight hours in one place and did it all, efficiently, attractively and purposefully. Ticked off leftover boxes, banished ghosts, took care of leftover business and showcased his prowess at No. 3.
Bell's first double-century could only have happened at The Oval in Kennington, the venue of the Test cricket's summer finale in England. It provided the official seal for Bell's declaration of his place in the international game. Until today, The Oval, while a place of much happiness for Bell, also served a dismal reminder. It is where he made his debut seven summers ago. It is the same ground where, as England pushed to seal their 2005 Ashes victory, Bell scored a pair, and was given the cruel nickname of Shermanator in the following Ashes by Shane Warne (now lavishly praising him on the Sky TV commentary). Two years later, on this very ground, with the 2009 Ashes to be decided, he top scored in the first innings to set up England's victory, which he has called the "resurrection" of his career. For Bell, The Oval will surely now contain almost biblical overtones.
All through his seven Tests here, Bell said on Saturday evening, he has sat on the same dressing room seat, "and it's finally paid off." He calls The Oval, "a funny ground, I've never gone big here ... I have had mixed feelings about playing here." He won't anymore, because he is, by his own admission, a very different No. 3 in this line-up, than he was in his very early days with England. He is, he believes, "as good as I've been form-wise in my career." The double century, his second three-figure score in the series, has taken his highest Test score off a three-year old jinx of 199. He celebrated with pure joy and laughed at the double, "That one run does make hell of a difference."
That it came at No. 3 has in many ways completed a circle for one of England's foremost composed, new-age batsmen. Bell's "unfinished business" at No. 3 has he says been about his development as a "run scorer" in a refurbished England set-up. "At times when I was up the order at 3, I don't think I was mature enough and ready. I believe I'm a much better cricketer now than the last time I did it; I've a lot learnt a lot batting at 5. I've really enjoyed the challenge in this series against a good bowling attack to get up there and show everyone what I can do at No. 3 now." Bell moved up the order in Trent Bridge from No. 5 to 3 following an injury to England's one-down machine Jonathan Trott. Bell says now, "I'm pretty realistic as well, that in next series I'll be back at No. 5."
His innings of 235 also means that Bell has overtaken Alastair Cook as the leading run scorer for England this year. It was a fluent, chanceless knock; turned weighty because it required what all double centuries do: concentration, a total focus on accumulation, the ability to abandon professional arrogance even when faced with largely below-par bowling, which he most generously called "good."
What has been noticed in the series is England's appetite for run-making - seven centuries between five batsmen, as against India's two from the same man, Bell's double being England's seventh in 15 months - and as Bell revealed, their batsmen's eyes for the numbers. "When I started you used to get the programme," Bell had said at the start of the series about his earliest days, "you used look at it and it used to be four hundreds and five hundreds (for England). You look at the opposition and it would be 20, 30, 40 (hundreds). It's great now to look at that and see all the guys now with 19 hundreds and 16 hundreds." He was asked if the batsmen quietly and competitively tracked each other's numbers and he said, "Yeah, yeah, we all know. And it's good to see we are stacking up the numbers now like opposition teams we've played in the past, which is great for English cricket."
The fourth day, Bell believed, had been set up for Graeme Swann to come into his own in the series. "It is exciting for us to go into day four and to see Swanny full of confidence, it lifts the rest of the guys. If we have to make them follow on, we know that Swanny can bowl at one end and our seamers can rotate and stay quite fresh for the other end." Swann's role had been limited in the series because of the pitches on offer in the previous games. The Oval, Bell said, for the first time in the summer had produced the first "bat-first wicket" for Swann to come into play. "Lord's was a green seamer, Trent Bridge exactly the same." The Oval though he said was playing like it did in 2009, "it is very dry - and to see the kind of spin we have seen on day three it is quite incredible."
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo