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For the second time in three innings against Australia, Ian Bell arrived at the crease with his team in the throes of a crisis. For the second time in three innings, he responded as if he'd come armed with a picnic blanket and hamper.
December 17, 2010
For the second time in three innings against Australia, Ian Bell arrived at the crease with his team in the throes of a crisis. For the second time in three innings, he responded as if he'd come armed with a picnic blanket and hamper. At Brisbane on the first day of the series the score had been a wobbly 4 for 125, with the Gabbatoir throbbing at the prospect of another Pom pounding; today it was 4 for 94 - or 4 for 16 in the seven overs since Mitchell Johnson had located his inner hornet.
Bell, however, faced both situations with the insouciance of a man strolling to the wicket at 4 for 452, the scoreline which had greeted him for the third of his performances, at Adelaide a fortnight ago. His first scoring shot came from his second delivery at the crease, an exquisite drive through mid-off as Ryan Harris offered him a length that his dancing feet turned into a half-volley, and all throughout Johnson's onslaught, Bell alone possessed the technique to deal with his devastating late swerve.
Three innings, three scores between 53 and 76, and three glimpses of a player who looks, stroke for stroke, the most compact and accomplished batsman on either side - more technically correct than the run-harvester Alastair Cook, more composed than Michael Hussey, the fidgety colossus of Australia's campaign to date. And more brimful of form and focus than Ricky Ponting, the only man on either side who can lay a claim to true greatness.
And yet, Bell's performances are just a speck on the stats of a run-laden Ashes series, because he's still paying the price for his failings of the past. There was a time not so long ago when No. 6 in the order was the only rightful place for a player of such undeniable talent, but whose temperament remained suspect. The logic was that he was a reactive cricketer, a batsman who could only play his natural game if others had succeeded or failed before him, and that oft-quoted stat about him reaching three figures only in partnership with another centurion was more than just a coincidence.
But Bell's better than that now, and it's doing the man a disservice to say that he has reached the make-or-break moment of his career - because he reached that almost exactly 12 months ago in South Africa.
At Durban he produced a century of such perfect acceleration that England went on to win by an innings, then he followed that up with a match-saving 78 in Cape Town a fortnight later, in the third of the epic rearguards that no less a judge than Steve Waugh has credited for transforming England from international also-rans to genuine contenders.
Bell turned the corner long enough ago, and for the sake of days such as these, England need to heed the lesson and reward him with a promotion. There's never been any doubt about his appetite for big scores - witness his three centuries in consecutive Tests against Pakistan way back in 2006 - and such is the surety of his touch right now that he could well have translated each of his starts in this series had he not felt the need to up the ante with the tail collapsing around him.
"There's no point in getting frustrated, six is my position," said Bell. "I've been doing it for a while now and it's only been a couple of occasions where I've run out of partners. It's disappointing because I feel like I'm hitting the ball as well as I ever have done, but as long as I'm contributing to this team and putting in performances that help us win or save Test matches, then I'm happy."
Shoving him all the way up the order to No. 3 would be an error right now - Jonathan Trott is at home in that position, and besides, Bell has had enough trouble at first-drop for the scars still to be visible, if not to the man himself - whose body language on this tour, on and off the field, has been supremely confident - then to the wider public who still find it hard to believe that the mousy character of yesteryear has started to learn how to roar.
But No. 4 or 5 is surely where he now belongs. Paul Collingwood is invariably the batsman on the brink of the axe in England's team, but his tally of 88 runs in eight innings speaks of a batsman whose role has become muddled, not least by England's recent run of successes which has left little need for his nuggetty, safety-first style. It could well be that his Brigadier Block persona will have to come out of mothballs at some stage in this Test, but if it does, it would make more sense if Bell has had a first crack at the defence. Apart from anything else, he is middling everything that Australia can fling at him. Collingwood, on the other hand, missed the ball that nailed him lbw by a good nine inches.
As Christian Ryan wrote in his blog on Thursday evening, No. 6 on the batting card is, in Australian tradition, a place where the stars of the future learn their trade - Trumper. Bradman. Harvey. Chappell. Chappell. Border. Waugh. Waugh. Ponting - to name but a few. While Steven Smith's credentials await examination on the third day at the WACA, Bell's have already surpassed all expectations. He's got to go up, because he'll help stop England slipping down on days when Australia's bowlers are simply too good for his colleagues.
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