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August 5, 2006
Ian Bell is the mouse that roared. The man who left The Oval last September with a desperate pair to his name is all set for a triumphant return when the final Test gets underway in a fortnight's time. In this series against Pakistan, he has already racked up 353 of the classiest runs imaginable, to become only the tenth Englishman to record centuries in three consecutive matches, and the first since Graham Gooch in 1990. A month ago, he doubted whether he belonged at this level. Now, all of a sudden, he's going to take some shifting.
Today, Bell's body language spoke volumes. Upon reaching his hundred, he celebrated in the Team England-approved manner, bounding down the pitch as Kevin Pietersen had done on the first day, swishing his bat like a tennis racquet. It was a subtle but sizeable change from his furtive heaven-ward glances of the first two Tests. When he was finally dismissed by Danish Kaneria - the first time a Pakistani bowler had dislodged him since December - he plucked off his helmet and gave a 270 degree twirl to an appreciative crowd. It was more emotion than Michael Atherton, his spiritual and technical predecessor, had shown throughout his 115-Test career.
"I've tried to work on the way I walk out to bat," said Bell afterwards, "because that gives off a lot of signs, particularly to the opposition. John Inverarity [my coach] at Warwickshire said as much. Whether you play-and-miss or hit a four, you just need to show complete positiveness without going over the line and being arrogant. It's about absolute self-belief when you're facing bowlers, and trying to be in charge, I guess."
Bell and England now have a maximum of three innings until the start of the Brisbane Test in November, and for a side that's been wracked by injuries, suddenly the question is not who to draft in, but who to squeeze out? Andrew Flintoff must return, in one guise or another, which means someone in the current starting line-up is going to have to bite the bullet.
A fortnight ago, it had to be Bell. He was resigned to that very fate after his chanceless hundred in the Lord's Test, but Flintoff's latest ankle operation has provided a stay of execution that Bell's rapidly transforming into a Shawshank Redemption-style prison break. It's hardly a like-for-like comparison, of course, but in three matches as England's No. 6, Bell has scored as many centuries as Flintoff has managed in 40, and in the process has taken his career tally to an impressive five hundreds from 17 starts.
There's one big question on everyone's lips, however. Is he the real deal? How significant is it that Pakistan are missing all three of their first-choice seamers, and what does that mean to a man who adores run-scoring but has often seemed to shrink from pressure? On each occasion, the platform for his performance has been established by others - 321 for 4 at Lord's, 288 for 4 at Old Trafford and 192 for 4 here at Headingley. Diminishing returns they may be, but these are not the squeaky-bum scorelines of 19 for 4, 72 for 5 (with nightwatchman) and 57 for 4 that Flintoff had to cope with at Lord's, Edgbaston and Trent Bridge last summer.
"Obviously they are missing Shoaib Akhtar and that makes a hell of a difference," admitted Bell. "But I still rate this as a good side with some world-class cricketers. As a unit we've played pretty well, got through the good spells, and cashed in at the very end. I think we're seeing that Pakistan are up for a fight, which is what we expected after winning at Old Trafford. Knowing Bob Woolmer they were always going to come out scrapping and fighting hard."
To give Bell his due, he has looked utterly unflustered at any stage of the series, even though he has twice had to rely on his tailenders to help him through those nervous nineties. More forthright players might have taken the tumble from No. 4 to No. 6 as a personal sleight; Bell, on the other hand, may have let out a quiet sigh of relief. No longer is he being called upon to establish the tempo of England's performance, a role that is better left to men such as the cocksure Alastair Cook and the incomparable Kevin Pietersen. Instead he's allowed to be his own man.
"I'm enjoying batting at No. 6," he admitted, although he did nonetheless insist: "I would probably like to get up the order a little bit. It's been nice to come in when there have been a few runs on the board, but it's been quite difficult sitting there watching, which is unusual for me as a No. 3. It's a different pressure from what I'm used to, although today [at 192 for 4] could have gone either way. Another couple of wickets and then we'd have been in trouble."
Does Bell's success at No. 6 open the door to a new England strategy for this winter's Ashes? In the past, the strength of the side was its ability to cover all eventualities with the ball in hand. Five bowlers would do a job on any given surface. But since the demise of Simon Jones, England's third seamer - whether that be Liam Plunkett, Sajid Mahmood or Jon Lewis - has consistently failed to make the grade. His ankle permitting, perhaps Flintoff, for one final series, should be treated as an out-and-out pace option, slotting in at No. 7 in a four-man attack.
That would give Bell the job security that his current form deserves, and Chris Read or Geraint Jones a chance to slip unnoticed down to No. 8. But as Bell rightly pointed out, there's plenty of cricket between now and November. "We're not going to get through the next 12 months with just 11 players," he said, "so I think the squad's just as important as the 11 that go onto the field. I'd be devastated not to play, but so long as I'm part of that squad and pushing for places, then I'm very happy."
What's wrong with their cricket? Well, what isn't?