England may already have won the Ashes, they may well win the series. But there is a fag paper between these sides and it might be closer than that were it not for Ian Bell discovering the form of his life, fulfilling his destiny at last and changing the course of events.
Throughout an engrossing third day at the fourth Test it went this way and that. There is scope, though not much thanks to Bell’s third delectable hundred, for it to change direction again. By the close England had edged ahead of Australia, 202 runs in front with five wickets in hand.
Once more, the home side were indebted to Bell, the great stylist who has imposed his class and temperament on the Ashes this summer with five scores above 50. The first of those qualities has never been in doubt, the second has been a topic of constant debate throughout his international career. Until now.
Bell scored his third hundred of the series, remarkable considering the overall recent paucity of the side’s batting. The key partnership was of 106 with Kevin Pietersen, the two senior professionals together leading England out of peril.
It was never exactly comfortable on a pitch likely to be increasingly duplicitous but Bell was usually consummate, again using the late cut and the cover drive to enormous profit and playing in his most measured fashion. He was 105no at the end from 189 balls with 10 fours.
If Pietersen were ever in the mood, it would be tempting to ask him what it feels like batting at the other end to such a classical artist.
There was a marvellous passage towards the close when Ryan Harris, who had brought England low earlier in the piece, came charging in at Bell, titans in opposition. He over-pitched one slightly and Bell seized on it, cover driving impeccably for four, his head still, his elbows high, a picture of balance. Two balls later Harris bowled a bouncer which reared up at Bell and knocked him on to his backside as he fended it down.
Bell’s liaison with Pietersen was essential, coming as it did after England were reduced to 49 for 3, which is not tatters precisely but is not a template for creating success either. On five occasions out of eight in these Ashes, England have lost three wickets for 64 runs or fewer and on another were 11 for 2. The first wicket has never yielded more than 47. If the management thinks there is not a problem they are in denial.
The main cause of the troubles was the excellent fast bowling of Harris, who has an air perpetual menace about him. His broad muscularity defies the fragility of a body which has restricted him to 15 Test matches at the age of 33 but when the string and sealing-wax which holds it together stay intact there are few more incisive speed merchants around.
This means that Joe Root could be forgiven for being bowled by him for his fourth single-figure score in four matches as opener. True, a strong case could be made for Root not playing forward far enough – a habit that Australia are exploiting fully – but it was a humdinger of a ball, pitching, holding its line and clipping off stump.
Alastair Cook was more culpable, driving at a wide one, going wider and being caught behind. It was most unlike Cook, which was the more peculiar since Jonathan Trott was also conveying the impression once more of desiring to be someone else.
Trott is the original grind-them-down chap but, admittedly in a slow scoring contest, he has been the quickest of England’s batsmen against Australia. It is almost a crime against nature.
Here he was again, rattling along against normal instincts. This is all very well but it has not led to the runs of yore. Sometimes he has been unlucky but Australia have also found weaknesses in his armoury. Harris snared him by bowling a fast bouncer on leg stump which Trott attempted to glance and managed only to glove to Brad Haddin for the wicketkeeper’s 23rd catch of the series.
Australia were right back in the match then, having constructed the sort of start they wanted after losing the first hour of the day. The tourists were in a strong position when play started, 16 runs behind on first innings with five wickets in hand.
Graeme Swann struck for England in the second over when he had the dangerous Haddin lbw, a decision which stood after review. Before the second new ball was taken, Swann and England had the bonus of ending Chris Rogers’s maiden Test century.
It was not straightforward, but then that has applied to many dismissals lately. Rogers was given not out after Matt Prior held a brilliant catch leaping forward after the ball seemed to come off bat and pad. England asked for a review and were rewarded when it was shown the ball had glanced Rogers’s glove. It is a game of small margins but it was another incorrect verdict by the umpire, Tony Hill, who must have wanted the ground to open up.
Matters were wrapped up when the new ball was taken, though not before Harris enjoyed himself by striking five cracking boundaries.
England reviewed the not out lbw verdict against him delivered by Hill. When the first replay showed where it had hit the batsman’s pads, Harris walked off, followed by England, leaving poor Hill standing alone in the middle, waiting for the official confirmation that he had to alter his decision.
These Ashes will be remembered for the Decision Review System, which may have to be changed as a result. But at least DRS has serious competition. They will be remembered too for the 10th England batsmen to score three hundreds in a series against Australia, Ian Bell.