Bell's numbers start to stack up
When all else is said and done, when all the psychological by-plays are taken out of the equation, cricket is in essence a numbers game, and right at this moment, Ian Bell's are stacking up phenomenally. Sunday's unbeaten century was his second of the series and his third in his past four Tests, and by the time of England's declaration his series average stood at a monumental 335.
In a team that already possesses Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott, two of the most avaricious run-hoarders in the world game, Bell's silky presence in the middle-order is providing far more than mere embellishment. As Stuart Law, Sri Lanka's frustrated coach, admitted, he is becoming "a pain in the backside". Time and time again, he steals in from his No. 5 position to turn shaky positions into solid ones, and formidable positions into impregnable ones, without ever compromising the silken nature of his strokeplay.
Today's performance was as inevitable as it was attractive to watch. From the moment he resumed on 40 not out overnight, he exuded a sense of purpose and belonging that bent Sri Lanka's bowling to his will. Whereas Kevin Pietersen, in a thrilling return to form on Saturday afternoon, had played exclusively in the V to maximise his strengths (and shield his current weaknesses), Bell soon proved there was no shot beyond his remit. "He scores quickly but hits the ball in 360-degree arcs," said Law. "It's very difficult to contain. He's full of confidence and you can see that in the way he plays."
These days, the psychology of the game can go hang. Bell's only interest is the numbers, which - from the days he was marked out as a teenage prodigy - is all he has ever really sought. At the age of 29, and with 4500 Test runs safely tucked away alongside a mounting Test average of 47.11, he seems to have cultivated an immunity to all external pressures. It's hard to believe this is the same batsman whom Shane Warne once derided as "The Sherminator", and who briefly developed a cringe-inducing habit of puffing out a still-mousy frame in a bid to improve his body language.
It used to be the case that Bell saved his most fluent performances for situations devoid of pressure. Nowadays he takes the pressure out of situations through the fluency of his performances. "Playing good cricket is all about consistency and Ian has started to fulfil the promise he showed coming through the ranks as a youngster at Warwickshire," said Law, who saw him at close quarters during his long service on the county circuit. "Hats off to him, he played another great knock today."
Qualitatively, there was scarcely a jot of difference between this latest breeze of an innings and the 162 not out he pillaged off the over-awed Bangladeshis at Chester-le-Street in 2005. Then as now, an outclassed attack was further demoralised by every new swish of his bat. But the context has been transformed in the intervening years. These days Bell's team-mates, his opponents, the press and the paying public all know he'd be playing with the same clarity of purpose, regardless of the match situation.
"I feel like I am batting as well as I can at the minute, and it's nice to contribute to us getting in winning positions.," said Bell. "I think in the past I've played well at times, probably not when it's got very tough, but hopefully in the last 12-18 months I've started to put in performances when the team have needed them most, and doing it more consistently, which is what you want to do as a batsman. I'm really happy with the way my game's going, and the improvement I've made, but there's still a long way to go hopefully with where I can take my game to."
Bell knows better than any player that his 335 series average is unsustainable. In the immediate aftermath of that Bangladesh performance, his overall career mark stood at 297 - an unfortunate prelude to his run of seven single-figure scores in ten innings of the 2005 Ashes. But right at this moment, it is a fitting tribute to a run of form that has crashed past innumerable benchmarks in the past two years, ever since his axing in the Caribbean forced a complete reappraisal of his game.
Bell was made the scapegoat for England's 51 all out in Jamaica in March 2009 - the match that marked the nadir from which Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss plotted their rise towards world Test domination. A feckless cut in the final over before lunch led to his banishment, and he wasn't recalled until Kevin Pietersen's Achilles injury in the subsequent Ashes campaign. He trained harder in the interim, toughening himself up in the physical sense which in turn brought the mental side along with it, while facing up to the fact that he had to embrace his seniority in the team.
The returns were almost instantaneous. From the moment he marked his comeback with a half-century in the drawn Ashes Test at Edgbaston, Bell has averaged 69.04, which is a notch below the 72 he made in the decisive victory at The Oval two matches later. That was the first occasion in which he really made runs when it mattered, but his defining innings was his 140 in Durban four months later, since when his figure has been 91.46. Since the tour of Bangladesh last March, when at the tenth time of asking, he scored a century without another batsman doing likewise, it has risen to 106.60.
As Trott and Cook are no doubt aware, and as Pietersen has spent the past two years confirming, such good times are unlikely to continue in perpetuity. But as Graeme Swann aptly put it while describing England's top three as "cures for insomnia", most of Bell's fellow batsmen have limitations on their games that he does not seem to possess. Like Eoin Morgan, whose Test credentials are improving by the match, his wealth of scoring options create new opportunities with every new switch of the field.
His 57 from 43 balls in the declaration rush at Lord's was a case in point. At the other end was Cook, unquestionably admirable in reaching yet another Test century, but defiantly one-paced even when the match situation demanded more haste. His belated attempt to up the ante brought him out of his comfort zone, and resulted in the first stumping of his first-class career.
With the retirement of Paul Collingwood, Bell has been landed the extra responsibility of being England's insurance policy in times of need, but it is a burden he has worn particularly lightly. Awkward situations - such as England's first-day 22 for 3 at Lord's - have been greeted with the insouciance he demonstrated all throughout the Ashes, the series in which it was clear he had outgrown his No. 6 position. At Brisbane and Perth, he alone possessed the fluency to overcome tricky conditions, but he was twice forced to chance his arm, for 76 and 53 respectively, as the tail subsided around him.
Can it last? It's hard to see a reason why not. With the possible exception of Andrew Strauss, no-one else in the current England team has a range of experiences quite like Bell's, and Strauss would never pretend to have anything like the same range of shots. After years in the shadows, his time has finally come. And his quest for greater numbers could yet define that of his team as a whole. No. 1 in the world is attainable for both.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo