England v Australia, 1st Investec Test, Trent Bridge, 3rd day July 12, 2013

Bell stands tall when England need him

There were very few of the strokes he is gifted with but Bell's fortitude has given England the platform to strike the first blow in this series

Sometimes it is not the shots a batsman plays that are so impressive, but those he does not.

So it was for Ian Bell on the third day at Trent Bridge. Coming to the crease with the match in the balance - England were just 66 ahead when they lost their fourth second innings wicket a few minutes after Bell's arrival - Bell summed up the conditions and the match situation perfectly in playing an innings of denial, patience and maturity to retain England's hopes of escaping - and yes, it would constitute an escape - with a victory from this Test.

It might just be remembered as his best innings for England. Not his prettiest, not his highest, but his most valuable, his most determined and his most professional.

This is a slow, low wicket. It is a wicket on which attempts to force progress are strewn with danger. Where timing the ball is difficult. Where any attempt to push the bat in front of the body risks the possibility of playing-on, as Kevin Pietersen proved.

So Bell waited. He played straight. He left well and he refused to be drawn into pushing at anything away from his body. He wore down a consistent attack who gained impressive reverse swing and bowled admirably straight, he waited for them to err and he picked them off. He had, by stumps on day three, faced 188 dot balls - from 228 deliveries faced - and not scored a single run between mid-on and mid-off. Ten of his 12 fours came from deflections, either late cuts or leg glances, behind the wicket.

That constitutes a remarkable act of restraint from a batsman as gifted as Bell. He forged his reputation as a strokemaker who could time the ball with a sweetness granted to very few; a man who could make a packed house purr with pleasure and gasp with joy.

But here, like Monet opting to use only shades of grey, he reined in all those attacking instincts to provide the innings his team required. While it would be stretching a point to suggest that he showed the determination to make ugly runs - even Bell's nudges and nurdles are prettier than most - he did reiterate that he is far more than the luxury player that his detractors sometimes suggest.

There are those that still think of Bell as an unfulfilled talent. It is an appraisal that perhaps says more about the great expectations that have burdened Bell than any reasonable analysis of his record: after 6,000 Test runs, an average in excess of 45 and 17 Test centuries, he has already enjoyed a fine career and, aged 31, there are trunk loads still to come.

A persistent criticism of Bell is that he rarely scores runs in the toughest conditions; that his contributions may adorn but rarely define a game. It is a harsh judgement - he has valuable performances under pressure several times, not least at The Oval in 2009, Cape Town in 2010, Trent Bridge in 2011 and Auckland in 2013 - but it has been a tag that has been hard to shed entirely due to lapses of form that have been as maddening as they have hard to understand.

By the end of 2011 it appeared Bell had resolved any lingering doubts over his worth at this level. Recalled to the side midway through the Ashes of 2009, he scored 2,023 runs in the next 30 months and 23 Tests, averaging 72.25 and recording eight centuries. But set back by his struggles against Saeed Ajmal in the UAE Bell had scored only 898 runs in the subsequent 19 Tests ahead of this series at an average of 32.07. The doubts and whispers were starting to return.

He will have quelled them here. Perhaps not for long - the vultures never sleep for long - but for a while. On the biggest stage, against a decent attack bowling at their best, on a tricky pitch and with his team under substantial pressure, he delivered. It was an innings without a caveat.

One of the more revealing moments of Bell's innings came when he was at the non-striker's end. Exasperated - not for the first time - by Stuart Broad attempting a heave into the leg side, Bell came down the wicket to remind his partner of his responsibilities to the team. When Broad avoided eye contact, Bell gestured angrily to the fielder and shouted until Broad understood. It was the act of a man confident of his own senior position within the team and a man whose eyes were fixed not on a not out or a personal milestone, but on the team's success. It was as impressive a moment as any in this innings.

"We know how good Ian Bell is," Kevin Pietersen said afterwards. "He does not need to keep proving it to us. But that was an absolutely brilliant innings. He has proven why we think he is a fantastic player. He has come out there and played a very mature innings on quite a tough wicket. Michael Clarke set some very good fields and their bowlers bowled really well."

It would be a shame, then, if Bell's innings was overshadowed by the furore over Broad's decision not to walk for an edge so clear that Stevie Wonder might have given it out. It was a poor decision from Aleem Dar - a great umpire enduring a moment of human weakness - and most batsmen would not have had the gall to remain.

But the moral outrage should be suspended: very few batsmen walk in international cricket and while Broad was guilty of shamelessness, he was also consistent. There is no moral difference between a thick edge and a thin edge and, many of those who do walk tend to do so because they know they are going to be given out anyway.

It would not have been honour that prevented them from doing so in a situation similar to Broad's but an absence of his cheek. Unless the Australian batsmen in this series walk, they have little grounds for their indignation: Broad is no better and no worse than the vast majority of professional cricketers.

Broad batted well. While his batting in recent months has tended to be characterised by the slogs and heaves of a tailender, here he was prepared to graft and wait a little more. It was not perfect - he was still lured into a couple of reckless moments that required fortune to survive - but he lent Bell the support the team needed and had already scored more runs in this Test than any since the 2011 Trent Bridge match against India. A series of long net sessions with Graham Gooch and, perhaps, a change of mentality, have done Broad the world of good.

It might be remembered that two days remain in this Test. To listen to some commentators and analysts - not least Andrew Strauss - you would have thought that England would have benefitted from a more pro-active approach on the third day. It is not so.

There is plenty of time left in this Test and Bell's cautious approach was entirely appropriate. Bell gave the impression of a man who had the strength of his convictions to play the innings his team required; not to please the media or spectators. More hard work lies ahead - the lead respectable but not impregnable - but Bell's fortitude has given England the platform to strike the first blow in this series.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • j on July 14, 2013, 13:40 GMT

    England win thanks to Belly and Jimmy. They've got so many superstars in the team that if one falters, it's most likely that someone else steps up.

  • Martin on July 14, 2013, 7:48 GMT

    @Nutcutlet. Yeah, look had a bit of mud in me pouch - but got it sorted out. Keen to see an England win here as I think England are def the better side. The only reason it's close is due to the bad umpiring which handed Aus 90 runs more than they should have (Agar stumping) and deprived England of Trotts services in the 2nd dig (that infamous inside edge...). Them's the only reasons why this game is close. And you're right - Bell played the tough situation really beautifully. Maybe these back to back Ashes will finally see IB come through - lets hope so. COME ON ENGLAND!!! 5w

  • ian on July 14, 2013, 7:02 GMT

    @5wombats: Hi! Good to see you back hereabouts. Hope you're in improving health. Re: Ian Bell, I think that there are a vast number of discriminating followers of the game (like most posters here!) who are seeing this innings as possibly IB's breakthrough knock. Everyone has known for a long time that he had the shots, but he has never played in context quite like this before. He could yet move into the 'modern greats' category if he can play like he has here on many more occasions. I think a reassessment of where or if IB stands in the pantheon would be appropriate after the SCG match, early in 2014!

  • Martin on July 13, 2013, 10:53 GMT

    @Nutcutlet (July 13, 2013, 6:04 GMT) - hello again mate! Yeah spot on! I'm with you re; Bell. I never used to rate him in the early part of his England career - but jeez he's the real deal these days. As our friend @landl47 correctly points out - Bell has come to England's rescue on numerous occasions recently. This hundred (109 not as I write...) could come to be seen as a defining innings for Ian Bell. A real class act. Bravo Ian Bell.

  • suresh kumar on July 13, 2013, 9:29 GMT

    Clarke has no moral right to ask broad to walk or to talk about spirit. Had he walket when he edged in first test against india last series against ashwin?

  • Fiona on July 13, 2013, 8:33 GMT

    We knew he could do it look at NZ earlier in the year everyone was talking Prior and Broad but it was Bell that got us I a position to believe we could save it. Ian frustrates as he is can come in a play really dumb shots at the beginning but this is better more mature attitude from a a mature player.

  • Martin on July 13, 2013, 8:22 GMT

    @venkatesh only 4 of the 26 wickets that have fallen so far have been to spin and with 2 full days left we are guaranteed a result. not really sure what kind of pitch you want for a test based on that comment. the ball has swung, both conventionally and reverse, and there was seam movement throughout the first couple of days with the new ball. yeah its maybe a bit slow but its hardly been a pitch that the seam bowlers have struggled on.

  • David on July 13, 2013, 7:43 GMT

    Splendid analysis, but I am less convinced than most commentators that England have established a commanding lead. The Australian's have in their captain a batsman who could well chase down most of this lead single-handedly if he gets in ... and if his English counterpart does not rein in the poor discipline with which Finn especially bowled at Agar and Hughes, then this match is for the losing. I hope not because Bell's innings was wonderful, and made for superb viewing ... How much more exciting this and Agar's contrasting knocks were than any limited over batting! They demonstrated the infinite superiority of the longer form of the game over any abbreviated version. I think Broad should have walked, but given earlier errors I suppose his staying simply evens up the umpiring mistakes.

  • Dummy4 on July 13, 2013, 7:31 GMT

    As a long time critic of Ian Bell's continued selection, I must congratulate him on producing a very fine test innings on a very difficult pitch, under enormous pressure against excellent bowling on day three. Furthermore, this is an innings that wasn't achieved after others had broken the back of the attack, and it certainly changes England's prospects in the match. Given his undisputed talent, my disappointment in Bell has been that he doesn't deliver when the team really needs it often enough. Not only has he not delivered often enough, he has been guilty of some extraordinary shot selection when England could least afford him gifting his wicket. This knock will undoubtedly make him bullet proof in the selectors eyes for a long time to come, let's hope it also signals a mental toughness and discipline which combined with his abundant talent, could make the remainder of his career very special. Please Ian, it's not too late to become a great!

  • Jason on July 13, 2013, 7:04 GMT

    It wont stop the bell detractors stating he should be dropped, and that he never delivers despite facts to the contrary.

    In regards to the actual innings it was one with a bit of luck, and bell showing some of the shots hes become known for, deft cuts with soft hands through the slips, classy drives through the covers and leg glances.

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