The Long Room, revealed to TV viewers for the first time on what would have been WG Grace’s 165th birthday, fell silent. Even someone of Kevin Pietersen’s impenetrable self-belief was challenged by the icy courtesy of the moment. All it lacked, as a study in tribal custom, was a murmured commentary by David Attenborough.
The self-proclaimed big occasion player had lasted four balls before he was caught at the wicket, leaving England in a hole from which they were rescued by Ian Bell. It did not require a second successive century to confirm the Warwickshire batsman is a man to whom the establishment can relate.
Put simply, he is a cricketer rather than a celebrity. When he made the same walk, past the portraits of iconic predecessors and towards the wide wooden staircase which winds up to the first floor dressing rooms, he was applauded to the echo by MCC members. The contrast was telling, and could not be explained fully by the scorecard.
He shook his head in self-reproachment, obviously dwelling on his error in being lured forward sufficiently for part-time spinner Steve Smith to get one to turn, take the edge of the bat, and give Michael Clarke a comfortable slip catch. Bell is a solid citizen, deserving of the immortality offered his innings of 109 by the Lord’s honours board.
It was always destined to be a day on which history hung heavily. There was a tangible sense of expectation, an almost poetic yearning for what was to come. The initial hours of an Ashes Test at the home of cricket have a bewildering, yet beguiling, impact. Even in an age of instant disposability, they carry social, cultural and sporting significance.
MCC members, who may not be a representative cross section of society, but are secure in their passion for a singular game, began queuing outside the Grace Gates at 3am. Within five hours their vigil stretched nearly a mile, to St John’s Wood tube station. By the time the Queen arrived, for her annual laying on of hands, it was standing room only in Thomas Lord’s Victorian pavilion.
The response to Pietersen’s failure hinted at his enduring struggle for unconditional acceptance. He is capable of compiling an incandescent innings, full of rich, lyrical shots, but, too often he flatters to deceive. His pretence grates, even if it reflects the ‘me’ culture which defines modern sport at the highest level.
According to his sponsor, Pietersen’s principal life lesson is “always wake up looking to improve”. That might seem to conform to a fortune cookie view of the world, but as far as he is concerned, it has real relevance this morning. Bell may not be as alluring to the commercial community, or as familiar a figure to the chattering classes, but he is shaping up as the boy of this particular summer.
Their rivalry has echoes of that of hare and tortoise. Pietersen, who is playing his 96th Test, began with trademark assurance, scoring 57 and 64 not out on his debut, against Australia at Lord’s in July 2005. He has scored 1,411 more Test runs than Bell, who has played six Tests fewer, but made his debut 11 months earlier, against the West Indies at The Oval in August 2004.
It would be rash to bet against Pietersen crafting a match-winning innings before this series is decided, but in terms of consistency of influence and constancy of temperament, Bell is in the ascendency. He may have the features of a startled guinea pig, but he is beginning to acquire the demeanour of a predator at the crease.
The Australians, true to tradition and character, tried hard to exhume the legend of the Sherminator, but there was little point in recycling Shane Warne’s notorious comparison to the red-haired nerd in the American Pie films. Bell is now made of sterner stuff, and is resistant to the siren calls of the sledgers.
It was appropriate that James Pattinson, chief chirper on a sultry and strangely successful morning for the Australians after England had won an invaluable toss, was the bowler who failed most markedly to adapt to the unique demands of the Lord’s slope. Perhaps it was too stressful for him to think of more than one thing at once.
Bell’s durability is drawing comparisons with Steve Waugh, one of the legends of the Baggy Green who have been forming an orderly queue to offer insight and inspiration to a new generation, which is growing in stature and belief under Clarke. Bell is the representative of a rare breed of athlete, capable of knitting together a team so that it becomes greater than the sum of its constituent parts.
In basketball, such men are referred to as “glue guys”. They may have individual shortcomings, but they have unflappable temperaments, and are tactically and technically sound. Bell, a slave to the preconceptions of others for too many years, is no longer the perpetual promising youngster. At the age of 31, he is settled in his personal life, and a responsible senior pro.
He may lack Pietersen’s power, but he has grace under pressure. The languid push for four, with which he brought up his 1,000 runs at Lord’s (he is the eighth player to have done so) was a classic indication of his burgeoning confidence. He merely waited for the ball to come on to the bat, before repelling it, with the disdain of an aristocrat, ordering the butler to fetch more port.
He has come through the fires of considerable criticism – his occasional forays down the wicket have been greeted by scorn – and persistent doubt. He may not be brushed by stardust in the manner of Pietersen, but the ghosts shared his visible joy, when he brought up his 19th Test hundred.
Bell acted out of character by thrusting both hands above his head before he had even completed the first of two runs from a push into the off side. Somewhere, the ghost of WG Grace was nodding in assent. Well played, sir.
Pietersen v Bell
95 Tests 89
48.58 Test average 46.37
22 Centuries 19
227 High score 235
27.50 2013 Test average 42.63