Bell finally ends quest for Ashes ton
It is typical of the manner in which Ian Bell's career has developed that his finest moment as an England cricketer should have been so monumentally overshadowed, first by his team-mate Alastair Cook and his gargantuan appetite for runs, and then by a controversy involving the Umpire Decision Review System. Nevertheless, when Bell punched Steven Smith through the covers to bring up his maiden Ashes hundred, it was the end of a quest that must have seemed never-ending.
Bell's batting at times in this series has been sublime. At Brisbane and Perth he scored a brace of half-centuries of such effortless poise that you wondered how and why the rest of the batsmen had failed to negotiate the conditions. But as England's designated No. 6, he found himself running out of partners on the few occasions he made it to the crease, and denied opportunities when the going was at its best, particularly at Adelaide, where his 68 not out was entirely overshadowed by a Kevin Pietersen double-century.
Finally, though, he has cracked it. After 11 half-centuries in 18 Ashes Tests, he has now converted to three figures and laid to rest the ghost of failures past, particularly those of his first full season as a Test batsman in 2005 when the intensity of that summer's incredible tussle was too great for such an inexperienced cricketer. In 10 visits to the crease he fell in single figures on seven occasions, and in the grandstand finale at The Oval, he finished with a first-ball duck and one of the most ignominious pairs of recent English history.
Bell has spent most of his career living down that initiation at the hands of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, much as England's batting coach, Graham Gooch, also struggled to establish himself after bagging a pair on debut against the might of Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson and Max Walker at Edgbaston in 1975. For a variety of reasons, including a run-out for 99 in Perth and a rebel tour of South Africa, he had to wait a full decade to record his first hundred against the Aussies. But it did not stop him forging an exceptional career.
"It's the best knock I've played in an England shirt against Australia, so it's a fantastic moment to get a hundred against Australia," said Bell. "I felt like I'd been in pretty good nick and good touch throughout the tour, and I felt I put it together. I put on a partnership with Cooky and then Matty Prior at the end, and it was really nice to build those partnerships as we have done all tour."
"It's been a great tour for our batting unit," he added. "I've done a great deal of watching the guys really tough it out against the new ball and cash in, so it's nice today to go on. At times we had to work pretty hard for our runs, because we were desperate to keep batting and working on our partnership. It wasn't about trying to be fluent, but keeping the momentum going. Every run counts for us in this innings. We want to score as many as we can."
Bell may consider himself fortunate to have been at the crease long enough to post three figures. On 67, he appeared to feather an edge through to Brad Haddin off the bowling of Shane Watson, and turned to the review system as a last resort, given that England had two chances left and no specialist batsmen left in the innings. The system worked in his favour on that occasion, and luck was also with him 17 runs later, when Smith spilled a sharp caught and bowled opportunity on 84.
But in the final analysis, Bell has earned his reward for a run of form that has led many to demand he moves up the England batting order, at least to Paul Collingwood's current berth at No. 5, and maybe even higher than that. "It's another tick on an already outstanding career," said Cook. "He's grown over the last 12 months into an outstanding batter, and his stats are phenomenal over the last year and a half. It's always nice getting those monkeys off your back, and you can always say 'I scored a hundred against Australia'. I think it will be the first of many."
"I've always thought he's been a good player," said Australia's captain, Michael Clarke, who has seen him at close quarters in each of his four Ashes campaigns. "He always had talent and he's come up against a couple of good bowlers in Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne throughout his career as well, which would have been very hard especially starting as a young player. He's had a really good series, he knows his game quite well and he's been able to execute that. Full credit to him."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.