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July 28, 2006
When Alastair Cook raised his bat shortly before lunch to acknowledge his third Test century, few felt it likely another England batsman would match his effort - certainly in its elegance and quality - in the first innings. Ian Bell did just that, and some, on the second day at Old Trafford, in a Test which slipped quickly away from Pakistan in the afternoon.
So dominant yesterday, England showed even greater reserves of determination and class today in extending their lead well beyond 300 to put the match out of Pakistan's reach. No team has conceded a deficit of more than 291 to win at Old Trafford and, with a pitch offering discerning bounce to those over 6 foot 5 inches tall, it is unlikely Pakistan will buck that trend. In spite of all the injuries to have affected England since losing the Ashes, this Test is already shaping up into something closely resembling a milestone. However, in the dying moments of the day, Steve Harmison appeared to pull a muscle in his rib cage and was in clear pain, casting a worrying shadow on an otherwise excellent day's work.
England were in difficulty early on though as Kevin Pietersen, who could so easily have taken the game away in a session or less, fell to the second legitmate ball of the day. There was a refreshed determination and togetherness from Pakistan in the morning session, in which their bowlers - led by Umar Gul but well supported by Mohammad Sami - made the most of heavy, humid overcast conditions. On several occasions, Paul Collingwood fished and wafted outside off stump at deliveries which angled in before swinging away markedly. Cook though, much as yesterday, was reassuringly solid and elegant; even against the swinging, seaming delivery he had the ability to nudge it fine past gully and point, or swing it lustfully over midwicket as he did off Sami and Gul.
Collingwood appeared to aid Cook's momentum. With the introduction of Danish Kaneria the right-hander smacked him for two sixes over long-on, signalling to Cook that now was the time to press forward and show the initiative. He did so, cutting the tiring Abdul Razzaq behind point before climbing into a half volley and dispatching it to the extra cover fence. All of a sudden, he was into the 90s.
Even Cook's icy-cool temperament is prone to thawing when approaching a hundred, and a combination of good bowling from Shahid Afridi and evident nerves from the batsman left him scratching and poking. Inevitably he dropped it too short, allowing Cook to squirt one behind square with great skill and bring up his third, and most impressive, Test century. Even his celebration, while clearly delighted, was muted and composed as if to say "What's all the fuss about?"
Collingwood and Cook soon parted, and Geraint Jones offered precious little to dispel his critics, as Pakistan fought back boldly in the afternoon. With just Bell left to siphon runs from a worryingly long tail, the understandable fear of lower-order capitulation failed to transpire as Bell marshalled his underlings like a farmer rounding up cattle. Driving with the utmost fluency down the ground; off the back foot; through extra-cover, he moved serenely onto fifty thanks to good support from Sajid Mahmood.
No one in England possesses such a solid and technically perfect technique as Bell and in spite of an impressive career average of 45, it is his neck to which the sharpened knives are aimed. Give him a tail and he morphs into a different player entirely. Whether it is the responsibility of squeezing runs from England's lower order, or simply that he's taken on board Michael Vaughan's cliché of players "expressing themselves," it clearly suits him.
Even after losing Mahmood, Bell opened his shoulders - the highlight of which was the most crisply struck back-foot lofted drive over long-off. It could have been Damien Martyn or Mark Waugh. Indeed perhaps that's the very point: today, Bell was Bell; he batted with an abandon and freedom which until today had been dormant. It was his fourth Test hundred, his third against Pakistan and his best yet.
Despite the concern over Harmison, this was England's day - and another good one for Strauss. Pakistan have it all to do.
Plays of the Day from the second ODI between England and India, in Cardiff
Plays of the day from the third ODI between England and India at Trent Bridge
Plays of the day from the tri-series match between Zimbabwe and South Africa
Would he have fared better than the incumbent middle-order batsmen, Root and Ballance?