Pakistan v England, 2nd Test, Faisalabad, 3rd day November 22, 2005

The virtue of patience

Ian Bell - no hurry, no worries © Getty Images

Today was the day that followed the Lord Mayor's Show. After the bangs and spills, twists and return throws that coloured an extraordinary second day, the action on the third was dull by comparison, as England bedded themselves down for some mundane accumulation on a placid pitch. It wasn't especially gripping, but in terms of England's series prospects, it fitted exactly with the needs of the hour.

By the close, England were not quite back into contention, but neither were they too far adrift of Pakistan's first innings 462. And that was thanks to two hugely contrasting characters who played a pair of improbably similar innings. Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen are as different a pair of middle-order batsmen as you could hope to find anywhere in the world. Short versus tall, meek versus brash, technical versus instinctive. Only one of them, Bell, knew the secret of success on these wickets, however. It was Pietersen at the other end who was forced to adapt his game to meet the requirements - albeit with his own unique interpretations.

Mental strength, however, is a trait shared by both batsmen. Bell entered this series with his form and confidence shot to bits, first by Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne in the Ashes, and then by the knowledge that Paul Collingwood was England's preferred option at No. 4. He now approaches the midpoint of the series as the lynchpin of a middle-order that has spluttered back to life after some high-profile struggles, with his appetite for runs reawakened by the pleasant realisation that Pakistan is tailor-made for his temperament.

"These are fantastic wickets to bat on," he enthused at the close, with the sort of voracious hunger that seems surprising in someone so small, like a dormouse munching through a field of wheat. "It's just a matter of being patient and playing straight, and spending some time in the middle." All clinically simple, but ever so hard to replicate on over-to-over, session-to-session basis.

Bell's technique has often been likened to that of Michael Atherton, but the similarities extend beyond a watchful defence and a penchant for the cover-drive. On the last tour of Pakistan, Atherton produced a century of such stultifying tedium that most observers wished to have it purged from their memories - except of course, that his exertions made possible England's victory charge in the Karachi gloom. Bell's aim, it seems, is to emulate his spiritual precursor.

"I would probably say it was my best day of Test cricket," he admitted cagily, "but if you want to be critical, I'd have liked to be there tonight on 150 not out. That's the stage I want to get to in my career." It's usually left to the watching journalists to do the nit-picking, but Bell provides the caveats himself. His words were an exact echo of his regretful sentiments at Multan, when he fell for 71 with a century there for the taking. Given he had come into the match on a pair and a prayer, it was quite a telling insight into his cricketing soul.

Pietersen, on the other hand, is not a man given to regrets. "I don't make mountains out of molehills," he said. "I don't make pressure for myself. I'm not too interested in what happened in the warm-up games. I knew a score was round the corner." Bell, sat alongside him, must have marvelled at such self-assurance.

But then, eventually, he admitted it. "It's just a matter of being patient," he blurted out while his guard was down, and suddenly he was looking like the novice in the partnership. "I found it very difficult and Belly helped me saying: 'concentrate on the next ball, concentrate on the next ball'. This game tests you occasionally, but once you're in, you can milk the bowlers and play with more confidence, knowing you'll have to do something silly to get out."

Ah yes, something silly. Pietersen certainly managed that, as he spooned a short ball to midwicket, one ball after mowing Shoaib Akhtar into the stands for six to bring up his second Test hundred. But then patience is just one of several virtues competing for airtime in Pietersen's approach to cricket.

"I don't like to mess around in the nineties," he said, claiming, with some plausibility, that since his move to England he had not spent more than 10 balls there. "It's just the way I play. It's something that's worked for me, and since I've only once been out in my career that way, there's no need to change."

Not even after Multan, where he and Andrew Flintoff were especially culpable for the manner of their dismissals, did Pietersen see any need to change his basic gameplan. "There was no internal pressure on us," he said. "No-one come up and said we have to play like this or that. They're was some criticism about me and Fred, but we're positive players and reined it in today."

So, there we have it. No explosions, no umpiring howlers, no dancing in the footmarks. Just a timely injection of patience to a frenetic batting side, as England proved that for all their recent successes, they are still willing to learn on the hoof. Variety may be the spice of life, but for success in the subcontinent, England need to be singing from the same hymn-sheet, regardless of the range of talents they employ.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo