England v Australia, 5th Test, The Oval, 1st day August 20, 2009

Bell rediscovers his ugly side

Ian Bell and Churchillian rhetoric do not tend to belong in the same sentence - in fact, chinchillian would be an adjective more befitting of such a mousy character. But never mind the blithe assumptions that can be taken from this latest unfulfilled performance. Today's innings of 72 from 137 balls could yet prove to have been his finest hour.

In the course of Bell's 49-Test career, he has somehow managed to subvert that old adage: "It's not how, it's how many" and turn it to his advantage. His average, which today climbed back above the 40 mark, has so often been massaged by soft runs in irrelevant circumstances, providing a statistical whitewash for the numerous occasions when everything has been at stake, and he has been nowhere to be seen - most recently, but far from exclusively, his twin failures in that fourth-Test humiliation at Headingley.

Today, however, Bell fronted up for his country when the need has rarely been greater: in an Ashes decider at the scene of his single greatest Test failure, no less. And while he himself baulked at the suggestion that atoning for his two ducks in the series decider in 2005 had been a significant motivating factor ("It doesn't make sense to look back, it's a different attack, and I'm a different player"), it's a safe bet that everyone at The Oval, fans and opponents included, were fully aware of that little notch in his statistics.

While the "how many" of his performance reads like yet another broken promise, the "how" gave notice of a steely side that has all too often been absent from his career. He had to struggle and survive, and for two determined sessions he did just that, only to succumb - to knowing tuts up and down the country - to a tentative prod to his first ball after the tea break.

"It was frustrating not to go on and get a hundred, but I was pretty pleased with the way I played," said Bell. "It was tricky at first, we had to graft it out and it was some ugly cricket at times, but that's what was needed early on. We had to fight hard, it didn't feel like the usual Oval wicket where sometimes, when you get in, it's a lovely place to bat. It was frustrating and pretty slow really."

An indication of the importance of Bell's innings came from the speed with which the innings unravelled once he was gone. Five wickets in the final session hauled Australia back to parity and more, and yet, in a point he felt justified in labouring, England do at least have 300 runs in the bank already, on a wicket that is puffing more dust than the shifting sands of the Kalahari.

For all the justifiable accusations of frivolity that fly Bell's way, he is a player who likes to graft with the best of them. One of his earliest Test hundreds, which also happened to be one of his best, came in Faisalabad on the 2005-06 tour of Pakistan, when he managed to make his fellow centurion Kevin Pietersen look a headstrong rookie cop. Then as now Bell withstood a ferocious early barrage (for Mitchell Johnson read Shoaib Akhtar), and emerged from the onslaught with his confidence and determination ramped up in equal measures.

A similar scenario panned out today. There was nowhere for Bell to hide when he came to the crease at 12 for 1 in the sixth over, having been promoted to No. 3 in the order where he has thrived for Warwickshire but shirked for England, averaging 31.00 in 16 previous Tests.

"No. 3 is something I've done for Warwickshire for a long time, and I've had a lot of success," he said. "I want to keep improving for England, and at the back of my mind it's a position I want to crack and make my own. But today is not about me and what I want to achieve, this is about the team. It's all about England, going out as a team, and putting in a great performance this week."

Nor was there an opportunity for Bell to slipstream a senior colleague (as was the case during his last finest innings for England, his 199 against South Africa at Lord's in 2008). If anything, the reverse was true. While Bell ducked and weaved to the whims of his nemesis Johnson, Strauss at the other end slid serenely to his half-century.

"I knew [the short balls] were something that was going to be thrown my way, and that Johnson would be on pretty quickly after I got to the crease," said Bell, who was dispatched by Johnson in both innings of the fourth Test. "But I've done a lot of work in the last week, certainly after Headingley, to find a method that works.

"At The Oval you know you're going to get more pace and bounce than in other parts of England, so sometimes when you do get short-pitched bowling it's not the worst thing in the world," he said. "After a while you start to get the pace of the wicket a little bit easier, and I don't think the short ball got many wickets today, it was more the length balls that did the damage."

Hindsight will be the only fair means of assessing an innings from Bell in which, for once, his returns were less than the sum of the efforts he put in, and to his credit, he accepts he has a few doubters still to win over. "It's going to take more than one innings to change people's opinions," he said. "It's a matter of doing that over a long period of time.

"But I've been working really hard on making sure that it's not just the easy runs I get, it's the hard runs, and making sure that when it counts, like this morning, you get in and see through the early sessions and the new ball. I'm pretty pleased with how I played, but if you're going to be hyper-critical, I think I need to go on and score hundreds. As a team we've only got one and that's not a good enough stat in this series."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo