England v Australia, 4th Investec Ashes Test, Durham, 3rd day August 11, 2013

Bell creates his Ashes legacy

With his side in trouble again, Ian Bell produced another innings to transcend the situation and write his name in the Ashes history books

In years to come, when we reflect on the summer of 2013, it may well be that we remember it as "Bell's Ashes".

Ian Bell has been magnificent in this series. While his team-mates have batted with nervous fragility, Bell has combined the sweet timing with which his batting has always been characterised with the reliability and steel with which it has not. He has scored not just pretty runs, but match-shaping runs. He might well prove to have been the difference between the sides.

Bell will gain plaudits for having registered three centuries in the series. Certainly, it is a fine achievement: only two England players - Maurice Leyland and David Gower - have previously managed such a feat in Ashes series in England. It should also be noted that, following his century in Sydney at the end of the 2010-11 series, he has scored centuries in four of the last five Ashes Tests.

But such statistics tell only part of the story. The important thing about Bell's batting has not been the personal milestones, but the fact that he had come in with his side in trouble and produced under pressure.

This innings at Durham provided a perfect example. Coming to the crease with his side only 17 ahead and three wickets down, this game was in the balance. What is more, Ryan Harris was bowling with pace and skill and the pitch was starting to exhibit signs of uneven bounce.

But while every other batsman in the game has made batting appear a grim struggle for survival, Bell batted with an ease that has transcended the situation, the pitch and the bowling. His cover driving and late cutting, in particular, were things of beauty but, though less obvious, his shot selection and judgement at which balls to leave and which to play - for so long the Achilles heel in his game - was just as impressive. When Bell bats like this, he makes it seem absurdly easy.

It seems almost unthinkable now, but Bell entered this series with questions to answer about his long-term future. After a modest 18 months - he had averaged 32.07 in Test cricket between January 2012 and July 2013 - all the old questions, questions about Bell's mental strength and his resilience under pressure, were starting to re-emerge. All those innings in South Africa or against India in England, or even as recently as in Auckland were in danger of being forgotten.

Those questions have surely been answered permanently now. It is only surprising it has taken 20 Test centuries - only six England players have scored more and two of them are in the same side as him - more than 6000 Test runs and an average of 47 to convince the doubters. And, aged 31, the best should be ahead of him.

So soundly did Bell negate the low bounce, playing straight, late and low, that it appeared this pitch had eased. In truth, that probably owed more to the softening ball - the batch of balls used for this series appears to lose more hardness than normal, increasing the value of the new ball - but it did show what could be achieved if batsmen took their time, retained their composure and refused to be drawn into rash strokes.

The lead is currently 202 but until England have taken it over 300 they will not be comfortable. It will not comfort Australia to hear that England have not lost any of the 19 previous Tests in which Bell has scored a century.

"I'd rather have 200 on the board than be chasing them," Bell said. "But we've seen already with Australia that they will go all the way. That Trent Bridge pitch didn't deteriorate like we thought and this might be very similar. So if we start to get the lead over 300 I might be a little bit more confident. But this Australian team will keep coming and some of their batters are in form now. It will be a scrap over the next two days."

Bell's excellence has helped compensate for the failures of England's top order but concerns about the form of Joe Root and Alastair Cook, in particular, continue to grow. While worries over Cook's form are alleviated by the knowledge that he has a track record of success opening the batting at Test level, Root does not. Indeed, in 10 innings as an opener in red-ball cricket for England - eight in this series and two against Essex - he has passed 41 only once and then only having been missed behind the wicket.

England are not about to lose faith in Root. They knew when they promoted him to open the batting that he was not the finished article and this was always going to be a long-term project. But by promoting him, aged 22 and in an Ashes series, they risked damaging his confidence and, as a consequence, his long-term development. In retrospect, it may well have been wiser to allow him to continue his development in the middle order.

That decision would have had consequences for Jonny Bairstow. They are not necessarily negative consequences in the long term, though. While Bairstow looked more comfortable in the second innings, he has come into this series - through no fault of his own - hopelessly underprepared for the rigours for which he has been confronted. He did not have a single first-class innings between the Test series against New Zealand and the start of the Ashes - almost seven weeks - and, as an unused played in England's limited-overs squad - hardly batted in white-ball cricket.

For a team that prides itself on long-term planning, which monitors players' progress through the age groups, through Lions sides and through assessing every aspect of their physical and mental characteristics, it seems an oddly ramshackle piece of organisation.

Bairstow's career, Root's career and certainly the career of Nick Compton - a man who has enjoyed none of the continuity of selection afforded his former team-mates - might all have been better served had England persisted with the plans that won them the Test series in India.

Bell's form has allowed England to avoid such uncomfortable suggestions for now, but England cannot rely on individuals masking team failures if they are to retain the Ashes in Australia.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo