Pristine Bell gives England the advantage
England 234 for 5 (Bell 105*, Harris 3-74) lead Australia 270 (Broad 5-71) by 202 runs
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As the shadows lengthened over Durham, Australia's best bowler, Ryan Harris, sat England's best batsman, Ian Bell, on his backside with a menacing bouncer from around the wicket. The moment epitomised proceedings on another winding, twisting day of the fourth Test. Harris had done most things right: choosing a simple plan and backing it up with the most wholehearted of action. But Bell survived, allying pristine technique to plenty of guts and the batting form of his life.
Forty minutes later, Bell walked off Chester-le-Street with 105 unbeaten runs next to his name, England's lead an ominous 202, and Australia a bowler short due to Shane Watson's latest soft tissue ailment. Harris followed him, leading the tourists from the field after giving his all with bat and ball. But he lacked enough support, while Bell could point to sharp bowling by Graeme Swann and James Anderson in the morning before Kevin Pietersen and Jonny Bairstow put their heads down for critical stands.
Bairstow fell in the closing moments of the day, Brad Haddin pouching a terrific catch as Nathan Lyon gained turn and bounce from around the wicket, but England had reason to be satisfied. Their top order had been dismantled by Harris, before Bell yet again proved his pre-eminence among the batsmen on either side in this Ashes series by playing with elegance and tremendous skill. He was particularly profitable through the third man region, scheming Australia's death by a thousand late cuts.
Australia had lost much of the ground fought for so doggedly by Chris Rogers with the loss of their last five wickets for 46 in the morning, Harris's 28 the only real resistance. Haddin and Rogers failed to keep their wickets intact before the second new ball was taken, scotching any thoughts of a match-shaping lead. Swann and Anderson did the majority of the damage, before Stuart Broad notched a deserved five-wicket haul.
England's second innings began comfortably enough, but Harris conjured a glory ball that whirred in towards Joe Root before zipping sharply away off the seam to beat the outside edge and clip the top of off stump. Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott seemed intent on swifter scoring than on day one, and appeared to be doing it well until Cook drove at the line but not the length of a Harris ball going across him and edged behind.
Harris was by now bowling at a slippery pace, and in his next over Trott was late on a hook at a well-directed bouncer and managed only to glove it, whereupon Haddin held a sharp chance above his head. At effectively 17 for 3 England were wavering badly, but Pietersen and Bell set about calming the innings with good sense and sound placement.
Bell prospered through his pet dabs down to third man, an area Clarke kept mystifyingly vacant until Bell had made a decent start. Pietersen was troubled by the odd short ball, but signalled his greater comfort by pulling Siddle twice towards the leg side boundary. The runs accrued steadily, Clarke shuffling his bowlers around but unable to conjure the fourth wicket. He also moved from slip to mid-off, a bothersome sign for Australia that his back was creaking.
Pietersen was kept a little more quiet as the evening session began, tied down notably by Siddle. His desire to avoid opening the face of his bat to Lyon's angle around the stumps, something that hastened his exit in the first innings, resulted in ever more exaggerated flicks to the leg side. Lyon dragged Pietersen ever wider outside off, and eventually a front edge and catch at cover was procured when one ball did not turn so much as expected.
Bell was unperturbed by this, and Bairstow eased his own considerable nerves by twice driving Lyon straight with power. Their stand was broken briefly by a risible call by Tony Hill and Aleem Dar to go off for bad light with blue sky visible over the ground, but by the time Lyon struck again Harris had been seen off, and the game was tilting firmly England's way.
It had begun to do so in the day's earliest exchanges. Rogers and Haddin had resumed with thoughts of establishing a significant lead, but ultimately were unable even to reach the second new ball, due within six overs of the resumption. Haddin went back when he might have pressed forward against Swann and was lbw, his referral made for a ball that was hitting middle and off after straightening from around the wicket.
Following his enormous contribution to Australia's cause on day two, Rogers did not quite find the right rhythm, and shortly before the 80th over arrived he stretched to defend Swann and found extra bounce grazing his glove before floating up off his pad for Matt Prior to dive alertly and claim the catch. Tony Hill was unconvinced but was shown to have erred; England's review ending Rogers's innings.
Siddle snicked Anderson low to first slip and Lyon lasted only seven balls before walking across his crease and succumbing lbw, even if Hawk Eye suggested Anderson's nip-backer would have slid past leg stump. Three consecutive Harris boundaries from Broad stretched Australia's advantage handily, but in the next over he was pinned in front of the stumps. Harris went on to produce more heroics with the ball, but it was to be Bell who reigned supreme. England have cause to ponder where they would have been in this series without him.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here