"Assertive" and "Ian Bell" are not typically found in the same sentence - at least, not as far as the Australians are concerned. They have never doubted his talent, but questioned his mental toughness and his ability to make big hundreds. If his forceful century against Australia A at Bellerive Oval is any indication, Ricky Ponting's men might see a whole new Bell on this tour.
Nathan Hauritz, Xavier Doherty and Steven Smith are the bowlers who should take the most notice. Smith cannot help but have learnt something from Bell's attacking innings; all but one of the deliveries in his first over resulted in Bell advancing down the pitch, and being struck for three consecutive boundaries was a disquieting introduction for the legspinner.
Bell went on to collect 48 of the 57 runs that were leaked by Smith. Although he was more watchful against the left-armer Steve O'Keefe, Bell said it was not a conscious decision to deflate the confidence of Smith, who is in Australia's Test squad, but rather an approach he wants to use against most slow bowlers these days.
"The way I've been playing spin recently has been as positive as possible, using my feet and being quick on my feet," Bell said. "It was just to try and assert myself a little bit on the bowler, but not because it was him, it was just the way I try and play spin as much as possible now."
Bell finished the day unbeaten on 121 from 158 balls, and in the back of his mind was the advice of Graham Gooch, the England batting coach. Gooch wants all his charges to focus on making big hundreds, instead of settling for useful half-centuries, which is one of the issues Bell has sometimes struggled with at Test level.
In 13 Tests against Australia, he's made eight half-centuries without ever reaching triple figures, and averaged 25.68. During the previous Ashes tour in 2006-07, Bell, who is now 28, showed promising signs on several occasions without making the most of his opportunities, but he is a much-improved batsman compared to the man who averaged 33.10 in a side that lost 5-0.
"I feel a better player than the last time on this tour," Bell said. "But in a way, it counts for nothing, really. This is good practice and it's great to go out and get hundreds, but the big stuff starts in Brisbane and that's when it counts. I feel a better player. Over the last 18 months I think my game has started to really take shape improve from the kind of cricketer I was last time I was out here."
It's that sort of improvement that has won Bell a spot in England's starting line-up ahead of Eoin Morgan, who hasn't played in any of the three matches so far on the tour. Morgan filled in during the series against Pakistan this year, when Bell was sidelined due to a broken foot, and had such success that it wasn't clear which of the men would be an Ashes starter.
"Eoin is a fantastic player and he's got a massive future," Bell said. "Competition for places is great. There's no doubt that when you lose your place through injury or whatever, you're going to have to fight hard to get it back. Coming here, I thought I would be the one on the outside and not playing. It's been nice to get the opportunity."
The Australians know first-hand that Morgan is an assertive and dominant batsman; he showed that in the first ODI at the Rose Bowl in June. They might soon form the same opinion of Bell.