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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Scott on August 15, 2013, 21:23 GMT

    And when Bell actually leaves the turf the first 2 or 3 times Aus actually dismiss him, then possibly things would be different not only for Bells personal achievements, but for Eng's too. That said, fair play to Bell, at least he's made the most of his opportunities.

  • G on August 14, 2013, 8:44 GMT

    Dustbowl, you don't get 20 centuries at an average of nearly 50 by being carried by the rest of the team. Bell has forever had his critics, I've never understood why. This series has made these same critics squirm to find some angle to criticise him on. Of course they can't, so they just resort to talking about the UAE tour.

  • Martin on August 14, 2013, 0:12 GMT

    @DustBowl - if you are trying to damn Bell with faint praise forget it. It seems to me that you what you would like to say is that Bell is rubbish because he's always been rubbish. Forget it. Look up Bells hundreds at Faisalabad, Durban, Napier, Sydney and Nagpur and then decide whether he is rubbish. Add in these match winning knocks in the 2013 Ashes and I'm afraid that in Ian Bell you have a world class batsman. Wondering if you can see it though.

  • Paul on August 12, 2013, 21:52 GMT

    This article is written NINE years after his debut, any others when he did this well? He has tended to score when others have done so; eg Eng v India is quoted as a high- but everyone else helped themselves in that series. However well done, he came to the rescue three times very elegantly. But he didn't face the new ball as Rogers did - who outscored him. (Batting was very difficult for the first 10-15 overs of the new ball.) He also did an Ahmadabad AGAIN in the first innings.

  • Dummy4 on August 12, 2013, 20:56 GMT

    I think it should be hats off to Bell. "Give that man a Bells". Bell was no doubt the difference between the two sides. I was somewhat dissappointed at the quality of the batting of both sides in all the tests. Bell was the exception - he really batted very well and was seldom troubled by the Australian bowling which generally lacked venom apart from Harris who bowled his heart out. Siddle was not at his best - had it something to do do with the fact that he was thrown the ball only at third or sometimes fourth change?

  • thomas on August 12, 2013, 15:53 GMT

    Of Ian bells 20 hundred 14 have been scored in England. Before him anoint him as the next big thing, this fact needs to noted.

  • Dummy4 on August 12, 2013, 13:48 GMT

    Bairstow is a curious one. The flaws in his technique are obvious and he doesn't strike me as a man to play well against spin as he has a Robin Smith-esque hard push at the ball. Prior is totally out of form and there's no indicator who our second-string keeper is. If we win in Durham, is it beyond the realm of possibility that the Oval may be used as a trial match for potential Ashes tourists? Compton in at the top, Root back down the order, perhaps Chopra or Carberry to come into the side to replace Pietersen as a man who needs to be looked after, Bairstow as wicketkeeper, Tremlett into the side, perhaps Kerrigan as well?

    Yes, I know England's selections tend to be more conservative than a Texas Republican fundraiser but still I live in hope.

  • paul on August 12, 2013, 13:18 GMT

    Bell has been excellent for England and clearly the difference.

    The series can be known as "The Summer of Ian."

  • Peter on August 12, 2013, 10:10 GMT

    Don Bradman would say to Bell: well done! - now go out and play without a helmet on uncovered pitches and a standard cricket bat and average 99.94. Then you you will be in my league. But otherwise a fine effort young man.

  • David on August 12, 2013, 10:09 GMT

    I blame Warnie for Bell's success. By putting him through the mental wringer as a young man, Bell is now battle hardened.