South Africa v England, 2nd Test, Durban, 4th day December 29, 2009

Bell bounces back from Centurion horror

Ian Bell has always been a player more comfortable in the shadows than the limelight

With rare emotion Ian Bell celebrated his ninth Test century, both arms raised aloft before a tug at the England badge on his shirt. It was a very different image to the demoralised and diffident figure who failed twice at Centurion, including the horrid misjudgment of leaving a straight ball from Paul Harris.

Dale Steyn, who eventually ended Bell's pristine innings for 142, went as far as to suggest it was "probably career saving", and Bell himself agreed with his former Warwickshire team-mate. "Definitely, I knew I was under the pump a little bit," he said. "I knew I needed an innings to save my place. There was no doubt about that. I hadn't scored a hundred this year. It was nice to give us enough scoreboard pressure for our bowlers to go out and get six wickets."

By the end of the day, however, the story had moved well past Bell, thanks to the efforts of Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann, as South Africa were left in tatters on 76 for 6. In a way it was quite apt that one of Bell's best Test innings still wasn't what everyone wanted to talk about. He has always been a player more comfortable in the shadows than the limelight.

For a batsman with nine hundreds it is quite extraordinary that none have yet come in an innings in which he has been the sole centurymaker. The statistic is a millstone around Bell's neck, even when he produces elegant innings such as this latest effort. The general assumption will be that the groundwork had been laid by Alastair Cook and Paul Collingwood, leaving Bell to ride in their slipstream by plundering a dispirited and tired attack. But is that quite the case this time?

The first part of his innings could be assumed to have fallen into that category, after he had come to the crease on the third day with England cruising on 297 for 4 - a wonderful platform for any No. 6. Yet he survived a testing spell from Morne Morkel and crucially for Bell, and his seemingly forever beleaguered image, the second phase of his innings was made at an important juncture of the match.

It was a new day and England needed to set a strong tempo to build on Cook's century and their small 43-run lead. Bell had the chance to drive the team's position and leg-glancing the first ball of the day from Steyn for four was an ideal start. Then, when the innings needed a kick after the lunch break, he wasn't afraid to do his part for the run-rate. Critics will point out he faced plenty of spin and a struggling Makhaya Ntini, but that's South Africa's problem, not his.

The most significant shot of his innings was the lofted straight drive to reach three figures, as he came down the pitch to Harris, another former Warwickshire colleague. He'd tried a similar stroke when on 199 at Lord's in 2008 - his last hundred for England - and only succeeded in chipping back to the same bowler. This time, however, he held nothing back.

"I had a bit of a chirp from 'Harry', in terms of reminding me of two years ago on 199 at Lord's," Bell said. "It's been a while; it's been a hard 12 months for me, in and out of the side. I've been working hard and sometimes found no results were coming. But it's about going back to county cricket and working hard. Three figures was because of that hard work."

England have tried to make Bell into a No. 3 but that policy should be binned as a losing cause. However, that shouldn't necessarily mean the same has to apply to Bell's entire career. His international success has come in the middle order with this latest effort being his fifth hundred at No. 6, to go alongside two at No. 5. His average is over 50 in both positions and maybe it's time to accept that's where he belongs.

"After [Centurion] there was a lot of talk from many people that it could have been his last innings in South Africa," Steyn said. "He has come out and batted extremely well on a good wicket. He's a good player, anyone who plays for their national side is a good player and England have done well to back him rather than drop him and throw someone else in."

Still, even this innings is unlikely to end the debate about Bell's place in the England side. When he next makes a few low scores the questions will be asked again. For now though life looks a lot better than a week ago. "To get the runs and see the bowlers perform as they did," he said, "I don't think you can get a better day in an England shirt."

Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo