Bell far from three and easy as sternest test of his career awaits

They are all on trial for their Test lives, of course, but a slight, diffident chap with strawberry blond hair and freckles will be at the front of the Oval dock. Ian Bell has everything to bat for this week: the Ashes for the second time in four years, a place in England's winter touring party to South Africa, his future career.

By now Bell should be the most illustrious member of the team's middle order. Well, perhaps just behind Kevin Pietersen, but not far behind.

Bell was virtually groomed for a job as an international cricketer. Other people may train to be lawyers, accountants, fitters and turners, but he spent his formative years as an apprentice batsman. It was always a matter of when not if, and when he stepped out against West Indies at The Oval in 2004 the "when" seemed to have been perfectly timed.

Bell presented himself at the crease that day in August as if it was his territory and he would be dominating it for some years to come. He scored 70 with ten boundaries of crisp assertiveness. If he had not arrived he still looked here to stay.

It has never quite unfolded as intended. He has sometimes been as authoritative as he was that day five years ago but he has not regularly taken Test batting by the scruff and shown it who the boss is. Eight hundreds, four at number six and none in his 31 innings at number three, have been sporadic. They might seem to represent a reasonable return, but not from 81 Test innings for a player of his talents.

Bell made the 2005 Ashes team as the junior batsman. It was a series that seems now to have embodied his middle-order career since. He ended the series, as he will this one, at The Oval, and bagged a pair, the nickname given him by Shane Warne of "the Sherminator" ringing in his ears.

Suffice to say he did not treat the crease as a personal fiefdom, rather as somewhere from which to beat a hasty retreat.

He has become maddening to supporters of his obvious talent and makes it too easy for those who question his character to succeed. Sometimes he has tried too hard to be hard when he should just be himself.

As a batsman, Bell was not meant to be one of life's nightclub bouncers but one of its computer nerds and he has never seemed quite able to come to terms with it. Hence the confused approach.

Dropped last winter after a lean run in the number three berth he should have made his own, he was recalled for the third Test this summer when Kevin Pietersen was injured. He made a reasonably constructed 50, though he was perilously close to being leg before twice. Unlike in many periods of his England career he has not always seemed in particularly rich form.

It is worrying that he has been out three times to the left-arm pace of Mitchell Johnson because he also been dismissed five times in Test cricket by India's accomplished left-armer, Zaheer Khan, four times to them lbw. It may bespeak a weakness.

At Leeds a week last Saturday he came out with England in desperate trouble and prodded limply outside off to give Ricky Ponting the sort of chance he does not put down at second slip. More fuel to his tormentors: 58 for 2 was 67 for 3.

And now here he is, willing as ever, back at number three (average 31), where he has performed considerably worse than at four (42), five (54) and six (49). The jury is praying for some compelling testimony.

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