Bell begins to blossom
Is this the innings that finally ignites Ian Bell's Test career? An effortless 199 against the most feared pace attack in world cricket, in the opening match of a series that has attracted almost as much hype as the Ashes, and compiled from a position in which England had just lost three wickets for three runs in 13 balls. The evidence of this innings points to a cricketer who's found his bottle at last, and is ready to become the player that coaches such as Bob Woolmer and Dayle Hadlee have drooled over since he was 16.
Technically, Bell's innings was supreme, as each and every one of his eight Test hundreds have been. It began with a sweetly driven four through the covers to alleviate the pressure of the collapse that had brought him to the crease, and though he slowed after racing to 30 from 18 balls, he never came close to giving his start away. Only in the dying moments of his innings did the anxiety of a maiden Test double-hundred - and England's impending declaration - get to him, as he skied a pull into space on 198 and drove loosely back to the spinner Paul Harris one run later.
Bell, however, wasn't in the mood to rue the one that got away. "If I'd known before the game I'd get 199 I'd have snapped your hand off, so I'm very happy to be honest," he said. "This is definitely my best hundred because I've kicked on and made a big one. I feel as if I've played like that before but not gone on, but people only sit up and take note when you score big ones, not 60s and 70s. To play with that fluency all the way through my innings is something I certainly won't forget."
The ending to Bell's innings might have been unfortunate, but there was no quibbling with the upshot of his efforts. When Graeme Smith won the toss and chose to unleash his pack of pacemen on Thursday morning, he had fully anticipated a repeat of the first morning of the 2003 series, when England were pummelled for 173 inside two sessions. At 117 for 3, with Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn in the wickets, and Kevin Pietersen struggling to find his feet, Bell's arrival was the tipping point of the innings, and indeed, another failure could well have spelt the end of his participation in the series.
He never came close to failing, to the mild astonishment of not only a packed Lord's crowd, but the man at the other end of the pitch. Pietersen admitted on Thursday evening that he had to double-take when his partner began his innings in such a blaze of strokeplay. "Am I batting with Ian Bell here?" he asked rhetorically, a statement that suggested that the doubts about Bell's big-game temperament are not just confined to the media.
This evening, however, Bell made the whole situation sound as serene as it had looked. He entered the match having racked up 215 for Warwickshire against Gloucestershire, and that form - and that appetite for big runs - was fully in evidence throughout. "Mentally, having done it the week before, it helped to try and do the same thing here," he said. "It was just a matter of watching the ball, trusting myself and reacting to it. It wasn't a conscious effort to go out there and smash it, it's just how it happened, and as the day went on KP accelerated and I just knocked it around."
The big test for Bell is how he builds on this performance, because one innings, no matter how composed, is not going to win over all the doubters that have assembled in recent months. In the build-up to this match, Allan Donald suggested that Bell has the ability to become England's Jacques Kallis, and though his comments were greeted with mirth at the time, anyone who saw this performance will recognise the same unquenchable thirst for runs and the licence his presence gave to others to play more expansively around him. Kallis also required time and patience before his superlative technique was fully aligned with his temperament - he managed only two hundreds in his first three years of Test cricket - so Bell is, in one sense, developing ahead of schedule.
And yet, if one was being churlish about this innings - and it could yet happen in hindsight, if South Africa make equal use of a deathly slow pitch - it could be suggested that Bell has once again helped himself to runs that he hasn't really had to work for. This is, after all, a pitch that he knows and trusts implicitly. He's scored three of his eight Test centuries on this ground, and it was plain from the ease with which Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook cherry-picked their runs on the first morning, that there was nothing on offer for the South African quicks. Regardless of the tumble of wickets that brought him to the crease, a batsman as classy as Bell knows a featherbed when he sees one.
There is, after all, a statistic that can't help but nag away at Bell's career. Never once in his 39 matches has he been the solitary centurion in a Test innings. In a sense, that is a reflection of his Kallis-like anchor role, but it is also an admission that he's not yet ready to put himself forward as the main man.
"I don't just want to do this once," said Bell. "Hopefully this innings will be a kick-start for me, if not in this series then in series to come. If I get a hundred, I want to make it a big hundred. That's what the best players in the world do, and if I want to go that way, then that's what I have to do."
And yet, that's not quite what the best players do. The best players get a hundred come what may, be it big, small, graceful or filthy. Bell's performance is, without question, the best of his career to date, because of the stature of the opposition and the state of the game, and it could yet set England on their way to a victory that few predicted at the start.
But it is too early to state whether this is his new dawn. The day he scraps and survives on a screaming Headingley greentop, when all around him are faltering. That's the moment we'll know for sure he's arrived.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo