Marrying steel with silk
199 v South Africa, Lord's, 2008
Ian Bell already had seven Test hundreds to his name before this innings - including three in consecutive Tests against Pakistan in 2006 - but this was the performance many believed would mean an uninterrupted run in the team after a lean series against New Zealand. Although it did not end his reputation of only scoring hundreds in another batsman's slipstream - in this case Kevin Pietersen - Bell entered with the match in the balance as England were 117 for 3 having just lost 3 for 3 against Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn. Pietersen did not start fluently, but Bell drove his first ball for four and by the end of the first day was unbeaten on 75. The partnership extended to 286 before Pietersen fell; Bell, though, did not falter until within touching distance of his double hundred. With Michael Vaughan eager to declare, a top-edged hook on 198 was a warning sign and then, searching to reach 200 in imposing style, he used his feet against Paul Harris and crunched a drive back to the bowler. "Hopefully this innings will be a kick-start for me, if not in this series then in series to come," he said. It did not quite work out like that.
72 v Australia, The Oval, 2009
Six months after his near-double, Bell was dumped from the Test team after a twin failure in Jamaica when England were skittled for 51. He spent the rest of the tour having throwdowns in the nets, training furiously, endlessly shadow-boxing with the security officer and, in Barbados, running from the hotel to the ground. However, there did not appear a chance of a swift return. Then Pietersen's Achilles nearly went pop early in the Ashes and, searching for someone with previous Test experience, Bell was recalled on his home ground at Edgbaston. Two Tests later, after a capitulation at Headingley, the Ashes were on the line: England had to win at The Oval to regain them. Promoted to No. 3 for the decider when Ravi Bopara was put out of his misery, Bell entered in the sixth over with the scars of Leeds dangerously close to being exposed. He scrapped, battled, swayed and ducked, mostly looking very un-Bell like. The end result was 72 off 137 balls on a pitch already dusting, which put England on course for an over-the-odds 332. Three days later the urn was regained.
78 v South Africa, Cape Town, 2010
Bell had celebrated Christmas in Durban with a sumptuous hundred as England stormed to an innings win but it was this knock, a few days later underneath the splendour of Table Mountain, that stood tall. After a nip-and-tuck start at Newlands, South Africa had pulled away to leave England 466 to win or the best part of five sessions to survive. Three down at the close of the fourth day was dicey; five down before lunch the next looked terminal. Then Bell, batting at No. 7 because of a nightwatchman, began what would be nearly five hours of fierce resistance and energy-sapping concentration. Steyn and Morkel may not have had their strongest support ever (Friedel de Wet went down with a stress fracture) but the sheer amount of time left in the match made the escape a distant hope. Yet Bell, accompanied for 57 overs by Paul Collingwood, defied the South Africans. When Collingwood prodded to slip, the South Africa spinners chipped out the lower order. Then, after 212 balls, Bell's focus lapsed and he edged Morkel to Graeme Smith at first slip. He dragged himself off, head bowed, fearing the worst with 17 balls left in the Test. He could barely watch the closing moments, but his defiance did not go in vain as, for the second time in three Tests, Graham Onions repelled the final over.
159 v India, Trent Bridge, 2011
This innings is forever remembered for MS Dhoni's willingness to recall Bell to the crease when he absent-mindedly wandered out of his ground not realising the final ball before tea was not dead. By then, however, Bell had done most of his scoring - 137 runs to be precise, and they were runs of the highest quality. Pushed up to No. 3 after Jonathan Trott injured himself in the field, Bell came in with England trailing despite Stuart Broad's hat-trick. He survived an intense period to the close of the second day, and on the third produced a masterclass to wrestle the initiative from India. His half-century included ten boundaries, most of them piercing drives, and from his 129th delivery tucked a brace to fine leg off Sreesanth to register a rapid hundred. Notwithstanding his dim moment at tea, there appeared little to stop him and it was shock when he steered Yuvraj Singh to slip.
109 v Australia, Trent Bridge, 2013
Any one of Bell's three Ashes hundreds from last year could have been selected, but we will go for this one: a tone to set, Ashes at stake. The ground was still abuzz after the previous day's feat from Ashton Agar, who made 98 at No. 11 on debut, but England had regained some composure to edge into the lead when Pietersen dragged on against Peter Siddle with the advantage at 56. Ten runs later, Alastair Cook went too - a first wicket to Agar. Australia were buoyant. For Bell, the occasional flowing boundary pockmarked much studious defence. On 34 came a vital moment: he was given lbw to Watson one over before the new ball was due, only for DRS showed it was sliding down leg. It was not a faultless innings and on 73 Brad Haddin missed a low chance, but from his 237th delivery he scampered a single to point for a hundred. No one could argue he had not done it tough.
Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo