Late in the third day’s play, Ryan Harris, comfortably Australia’s best bowler in the match, bowled a delivery to Ian Bell that was so brutal the UN would have ruled it contravening to their human rights laws. It was nigh-on unplayable; from back of a length, it spat up sharply toward Bell’s chin— fast, hostile and ferocious.
It should have taken a wicket, but it didn’t. How Bell avoided the ball ricocheting towards one of the close catchers, we will never know. Perhaps it was luck. Perhaps it was the extra padding in his gloves. Perhaps Harris didn’t bend his fragile back quite far enough to get the ball to balloon to a fielder. But in this summer—in this series—perhaps it’s best to say it didn’t get "him" out because him was Ian Bell.
Ian Ronald Bell is playing a different game to the rest of the England batsmen. He’s been playing a different game all summer.
Right now, Australia could, to paraphrase Ian Healy, "bowl him a piano and he’d still play it well." He should be having songs written about this patch of form—preferably by Deep Purple. Bell should be having Swiss watches named after him such is his timing. Bell is playing so well right now, his shadow is getting jealous of him.
What puts his three centuries in this series into perspective are the struggles of the batsmen above him.
Joe Root scored a wonderful hundred at Lord’s, Kevin Pietersen scored one at Old Trafford, and there have been some half-decent starts in there amongst England’s top four, but on the whole, they have underperformed. England’s average opening stand in the series is 22, and none of the top four average more than 37.
Australia have had clear plans to Cook, Trott, Root and Pietersen, but Bell’s brilliance has made their plans to him hard to decipher. Whatever they were, they haven’t worked. Michael Clarke looks more lost setting fields to Bell than a five-year-old who’s stumbled into a sex education lesson.
Bell is the leading run scorer in this series by some distance, and with him in the form he’s in, it’s within the realm of possibility for him to become only the fourth player ever to score four hundreds in an Ashes series.
But of course, it’s not just about the runs. It never has been with Bell. Runs have never been enough; it’s the manner of them that matter.
Sometimes it’s complimentary—sometimes people will gush effusive praise on his “elegance,” his “class” or his “style.”
But normally, it’s the situation—quite often, people have criticized him for scoring “soft” runs.
There was a period when Bell only scored hundreds when another member of England’s team had already done so in the innings. There was also a period when Bell playing a timid shot in an hour of need became a verb—a verb too regularly used for many’s liking.
Bell was viewed as the kind of person who would be considering the beauty of a high elbow in a cover drive during a revolution, rather than be out on the streets leading the rallies.
But if you look past the 105 runs he scored today and look at the manner of them, there is no room to criticize. For the second time in this series, and the third time this year, Bell has scored runs for England when they really needed him to.
They were 105 runs that desperately mattered—105 runs that could very well be the difference between victory and defeat, and he still compiled them with his usual brio.
Bell’s problem has been that his batting is too effortless for his own good. David Gower once said, “it’s hard work making batting look effortless,” but with regards to Bell, it would’ve been more appropriate had he said “its hard work making effortless batting look like hard work”—for that has been Bell’s eternal difficulty.
Convincing people that you get down in the dirt and scrap for runs against quality bowling in pressurized situations is very tricky to do if you're the kind of person who could make buttering toast look elegant. Fight-back innings are meant to look difficult, not easy, and that has been Bell’s problem.
However, if Bell wanted to convince the doubters—once and for all—then he couldn’t have chosen a better series to do so than in the Ashes. The eyes of the cricket world have been on England over the past month, and it has been Bell plunging his fist into the mud and hauling England out of it.
Watching Bell right now is like watching a movie scene where an effortlessly cool man strolls away from an enormous explosion, utterly unperturbed by the chaos of the situation behind him.
“Everything’s going to be fine boys. Belly’s in now.”
How times have changed.