Approaching this Test Ian Bell was in danger of becoming one of those players with a great future behind him. Identified as a great talent while still in his mid-teens he had struggled to realise that promise.
The bare stats looked respectable. Still only 26 he had scored more than 2,500 Test runs at an average above 40. Yet a closer examination revealed his biggest score (162 not out) was against Bangladesh, against whom he scored 227 runs without dismissal, further centuries were against the West Indies (the modern, hapless, version, not the old, feared one) and New Zealand. Against Australia he averaged 25.10 from 20 innings, against India, the world's third-ranked team, 26.75 from 12. But for four centuries against Pakistan's inconsistent attack he could have been regarded as a bully batter. As it was the jury remained out.
Yesterday they rose as one to acclaim him. South Africa, the team which sit between Australia and India in the rankings, had been put to the sword. As he carved their exhausted attack around Lord's, making batting look simple, it was easy to forget the circumstances when he came to the crease. South Africa had taken three quick wickets, Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn were at last in full cry, and England, at 117 for 3, were in danger of squandering their good start.
Into this precarious position stepped Bell, with the pre-match words of Mickey Arthur no doubt resonating in his mind. The South African coach had said his team would target Bell as his position was under threat from the imminent return of Andrew Flintoff. Bell knew this anyway, one century in his last 27 innings was a weak defence against exile, but being reminded of it by the opposition appears to have concentrated his mind.
The Warwickshire batsman seized the initiative, halting South Africa's impetus with an array of boundaries. For some time he outscored Kevin Pietersen three-to-one, allowing yesterday's centurion the time to settle which he needed. Bell's momentum slowed as Pietersen took centre stage and will have been aware that one of his failings is the infrequency with which he converts fifties into hundreds. Thus he was delighted when he pushed through the covers to reach three figures yesterday.
“This was my best innings for England because I kicked on and made a big one,” he said. “Possibly the thing I’ve not done enough of is go on and get big hundreds like the best players do.”
It felt like a defining innings, but the same could have been said of Paul Collingwood's double-hundred in Adelaide. Eighteen months on the Durham all-rounder, desperately unlucky to be dismissed yesterday, looks like being sacrificed for Flintoff's return. To confirm his arrival Bell needs to post big scores throughout this summer, under tougher conditions and in a variety of situations. He has the talent to do so and, it seems, the strength of character.
Crucially, he did not give his wicket away after his century, but ploughed on, grinding South Africa's bowlers into the dust. His previous Test best was passed, rain delays were negotiated and a flurry of wickets at the other end ignored. Eventually however, the interruptions, and the need to get on with it for the good of the team, told. He stepped into a ball from Paul Harris, and, to his horror, thumped it back to him.
As Bell turned to begin a trudge back to the pavilion Mark Boucher and Graeme Smith gave him a sympathetic pat on the back. It is a strange and beautiful game in which you can score 199, and be disappointed.
The nervous 199s: Six more who didn't quite make it
*Ian Bell yesterday became the first Englishman in Test history to be dismissed while on 199 runs. He joins six other players who have fallen one short of a double century.
*Mudassar Nazar (Pakistan) v India, October 1984
*Mohammed Azharuddin (India) v Sri Lanka, Dec 1986
*Matthew Elliot (Australia) v England, July 1997
*Sanath Jayasuriya (Sri Lanka) v India, August 1997
*Steve Waugh (Australia) v West Indies, March 1999
*Younis Khan (Pakistan) v India, January 2006.
*England captain Michael Vaughan has twice fallen in the 190's, both against India in 2002, while team-mate Marcus Trescothick became one of 12 Englishmen to have been dismissed for 99 runs, during the same series.
*Two batsman have finished on a score of 299, New Zealand's Martin Crowe, against Sri Lanka in 1991, and Don Bradman, of Australia, who finished on 299 not out against South Africa in 1932.