As the final ball of the third test flew harmlessly wide of Graham Onions’ off stump, the smiles that broke across English faces were for a job just done. A job that, although remarkably similar to Cardiff and Centurion, will now be reflected upon differently by no-one more so than Ian Bell.
As the Ashes began at Cardiff in July, Bell scored 2 off 30 balls as his Warwickshire team hit 407 versus Sussex. Looking one way in the dressing room, he would have seen his former England teammates on TV, chasing leather around Wales; looking back to his field of play, he would have seen his then teammate Jonathan Trott scoring 164 more runs that he.
In the second innings, as the game drifted to a draw, his mood was lifted with an unbeaten 55. Two days later he would have been watching like the rest of us as Monty Panesar and James Anderson salvaged the first test of that series. A return came in the third test, thanks to Kevin Pietersen’s inability to walk, but the recall wasn’t unconditional: questions remained and doubts lingered. Still Bell protested his suitability.
Since his debut Bell has never been short of a sound bite about batting at number 3. “Responsibility”, he said, and “determination”, he proclaimed; but the matching innings were still absent. He said it so often to so many people that it would have been easy to think he was trying to convince himself.
The problem with Bell has never been when he walked out to bat, it’s what he did when he got there. Bell might have thought he wanted to bat at number three, but what he really wanted was to play the innings of a great number three. In the Lords draw of 2008 versus South Africa, he was one run short of taking a step forward, and in the following Leeds test scores of 31 and four took him two back. Similarly, 72 at the Oval won the Ashes, five and two at Centurion heaped on the pressure again.
The parallels to now are uncanny. He has just played innings that many are claiming to be career defining, yet came in a drawn test match against South Africa. What happens in the next game could cause this knock to be forgotten, whether dismissed as another false hope or lost in the celebration of the new Bell. The kick of the bat as he walked off seemed to suggest a reaction of hunger for better. That, more than anything, gave the air of a great number three.
The quiet one of England’s boyband brigade had never changed a game like Anderson, or controlled a press conference like Broad. He might not have been the sole saviour of England’s latest test; but after the game his smiles told more important stories than Broad’s studs or Anderson’s nails. Finally, the Sherminator might be leaving us, and Ian Ronald Bell will show who he really is.