England v Bangladesh, 2nd Test, Chester-le-Street, 2nd day June 4, 2005

Almost time for the real thing



Ian Bell has bided his time and has now taken the chance to fill his boots © Getty Images
At long last, the phoney war is all but over. Tomorrow morning, Australia will have landed at Heathrow Airport and the countdown to the Ashes can begin in earnest. Unfortunately for England's ego, they were unable to mark the arrival with a two-day dismissal of the Bangladeshi warm-up act, although if everything goes to plan on Sunday morning, they should wrap up this game before noon, the hour at which Ricky Ponting is due to make his first address to an expectant nation.

There is precisely nothing to read into England's inability to wrap up the match inside two days. At the fourth attempt, Bangladesh's batting located its backbone and restored a considerable measure of pride, particularly through the efforts of Javed Omar, who is by some distance their Man of the Series, and Habibul Bashar, who bravely backed himself and his strokeplay after a ghastly haul of 25 runs in his first three innings.

But until they received the late fillip of an extra half-hour, England's bowlers were beginning to resemble a troup of actors being pushed back out for one curtain-call too many. As Steve Harmison admitted after his five wickets in the first innings, only one team will stir him to extract that extra 2% from his locker, and it isn't the one in his sights at present. He bowled well, but within himself, content to groove his action and careful to take time out to massage a niggly thigh.

By the close, Bangladesh had snuck along to 297 for 8 - their highest total against England, and two more than they had managed against Australia at Cairns in July 2003. It wasn't quite a case of saving the best for last, but at least they didn't reproduce their worst for the fourth innings in a row. Good luck to them. They can now approach the NatWest Series with a modicum less dread than beforehand.

For the first 30 overs of the day, on the other hand, Bangladesh were clueless and cowering, and another rout seemed preordained. If Marcus Trescothick's 151 last night had been ferocious and entirely predictable, then this morning, they were torn apart by the mouse that roared, as Ian Bell played the sort of innings that few could have envisaged from such a mild-mannered cricketer.

In the build-up to this series, the biggest talking point was the omission of that one-day wunderkind, Kevin Pietersen. Ian Botham (Pietersen's manager) branded the decision a disgrace, Shane Warne (Pietersen's new mucker at Hampshire) questioned the sanity of the Poms in his newspaper column, and though Pietersen himself maintained a diplomatic silence, that was only because he had learned his lesson for speaking out about his omission from the South Africa one-dayers last winter - and we all remember how that situation eventually turned out.

But patience is a virtue, as Bell has demonstrated and as Pietersen, hopefully, will learn. Through he is still only 23, Bell has been England's rising star for four years now, having first joined the squad on England's tour of New Zealand in 2001-02, as a replacement, then as now, for Mark Butcher. During his time with the ECB Academy, Rod Marsh had described Bell as the best player of his age he had ever seen, which is not an accolade to be bestowed lightly. In short, Bell has been waiting with his motor running ever since, and now, he is indisputably the next cab off the rank.

To score your first Test century against Bangladesh may devalue the experience a fraction, and Bell's understated celebrations were considerably more restrained than Trescothick's cartwheels, who now has three Bangla hundreds to his name. But Bell is at least in good company. Among his international contemporaries, West Indies' Ramnaresh Sarwan and South Africa's Jacques Rudolph both made their first hundreds against Bangladesh, and to judge by his demeanour at the crease, Bell has the technique and temperament to be better than either.

This current England team prides itself on being precisely that, a team, and nothing highlights this better than the effortless induction of its two newest batting stars. This time last summer, Andrew Strauss was making the sort of splash that no English debutant since David Gower had achieved, immersing himself in Test cricket with three fifties in his first three innings, including that memorable debut century against New Zealand at Lord's.

Now Strauss has been emulated by Bell, who even boasts an unearthly average of 297 from his three visits to the crease. He is capable of the same effortless accumulation that has turned Damien Martyn into the most effective batsman in Australia's middle-order, and as we saw this morning, even when he is flogging an attack for 105 runs in a session, he still sees no need to hit the ball any harder than is necessary.

Let Pietersen carry on clattering around, and let his various spokesmen help beat his drum. For the time being, England have identified their man for the middle-order, and he is the one about whom hardly a peep has been heard from the Aussies. The silent ones are often the most deadly.

Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Cricinfo