Be a hero, Ian Bell. The urging of the audience was palpable, the whole of Edgbaston on tiptoe urging their boy forward as he walked to the crease with just 11 on the board and the skipper in the unsaddling enclosure. Only 110 needed for victory, sun out and a third-day pitch offering the kind of dreamscape that filled many a schoolboy imagining.
But this was Bell, remember, a prince of self-harm in cricketing terms, a butcher of the self. Rarely in the history of English cricket has such an abundance of talent been undone by the workings of such a wandering mind. His promotion to No 3 here was not reward for relentless plunder, a signal of strength, but a card of last resort. Bell, it was thought, was on his way out of this bacchanal dance had he fallen again in front of his home crowd. That debate has gone cold now.
Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England’s new thinking. This was audacious stuff. There must have been misgivings about Mitchell Starc’s outswinger that nipped past Cook’s outside edge and into the third timber. If there were anxiety, a deal of it evaporated as Bell leant confidently into his first delivery, an exquisite clip to the mid-wicket boundary off his legs.
He would be diced in half two balls later, but with a new cherry in hand the bowler is entitled to send down a rasping meteor. The key is to stop said ball penetrating head space, particularly Bell’s aggregation of grey matter. The very next over from Starc saw Bell at his imperious best, the first boundary of the over chased off the wicket behind a perpendicular bat, the second a cover drive that had the pigeons whistling.
Bell raced to 27 off 14 balls, England rattling along at five an over. Even Nathan Lyon was getting the treatment, Bell’s bat widening by the boundary. The appearance of spin ahead of the world’s most potent bowler says much about the nature of this mad contest. Eight overs had been sent down before Michael Clarke threw the ball to his foremost Mitchell.
Johnson’s first ball of the day draws the collective breath like no other. In truth, progress to the crease is not a thing of beauty, his 6ft physique compressed into a Mike Tyson-like crouch. Only in his delivery stride does he detonate that sling-shot menace, but this would not be his day. That one over in England’s first innings on Thursday apart, when he accounted for Jonny Bairstow and Ben Stokes, Edgbaston has not been the lethal accomplice he had hoped.
His first ball was wide, the second a foot nearer the stumps and rising into the keeper’s gloves, the third a nothing bouncer, the fourth played easily by Bell backward of square, the fifth slashed backward of point for four, to bring up the 50, and the sixth a dot ball. No dramas there. Clarke yanked him out of the attack after three overs and though he returned for one last punt, it was a brief affair. Better save him for another day. He would see out the rest of the match in the deep, fielding good-natured abuse from the crowd as well as leather.
So England advance on Trent Bridge contemplating the reclaiming of the Ashes with a Test to spare. Who would have thought that after the towelling at Lord’s? The loss of Jimmy Anderson is a concern as is the form of opener Adam Lyth, who is yet to convince in the Test arena.
The absence of Anderson at Trent Bridge, where he has enjoyed prolific success, presents an obvious difficulty for the selectors. Friday gave us an uneasy glimpse of what the post-Jimmy epoch might be like as Australia added 97 to their overnight total in the opening session. Steve Finn pipped Anderson to the man of the match award after his stirring return to Test combat, but if you had to choose one to bowl for your mortgage in Nottingham, you would go for Jimmy.
Having participated in a match won on the third day, with seven sessions to spare, Lyth will probably avoid the guillotine his form invites. You sense there is a batsman in there waiting to break cover, but unfamiliarity with this heightened environment acts like a straitjacket on reluctant limbs. Feet that move freely in the service of Yorkshire are tied.
There was a neat cover drive off the third ball after lunch – albeit from a generous half-volley – which suggested he might match Bell’s standard. He lasted until the 12th over, bowled by Josh Hazlewood, the first ball of which nipped back off the seam and into his pads. Chris Gaffaney needed nil persuasion to raise his digit and though Lyth appealed, it was the desperate move of the condemned man begging for clemency that always seemed out of reach.
There is the view that, in the absence of a compelling alternative, it is worth persevering with Lyth. Wrong. The shortcomings of others are no justification for the selection of one who shares them. Lyth averages 12 in this series. In four innings against New Zealand he scored 150 runs. Take the 107 he scored on his own lawn at Headingley out of the equation and the evidence says he is not a Test batsman.
But with a series to win, England will consider twisting at the top of the order a greater risk than sticking. The success of Bell at three, unbeaten on 65 in the second innings after a half-century in the first, to a degree takes the pressure off the opening pair. Having surrendered the initiative once in this series, England will want to hold onto the magic binding the group together, not pick it apart.
Bell’s double-fisted salute in front of a rapturous crowd, after Root pummelled the winning boundary, might yet be one of the defining memories of this epic duel, but only should England prevail.Reuse content