Bell finds form before strange return of the dead sheep stroll

By now, Ian Bell should be a national hero as well as an MBE. There is a distinct difference, and in his case the gap has been widening. Whenever he walks out to bat the movement in the crowd is less a ripple of anticipation than a shrug of the shoulders.

Bell has become the personification of under-achievement. Possessed of abundant natural gifts (which appear sometimes, it is true, to have been coached to the point of extinction) he is also possessed by a diffidence that somehow makes him afraid to use them.

Too often, when bowlers have Bell at the other end they must know the meaning of being mauled by a dead sheep. But intermittently he shows what all the fuss has been about since he was first spotted as a 12-year-old. Yesterday was one of those days.

If South Africa came to The Oval intent on redemption for their miserable form in the one-day series so far, Bell swiftly demonstrated that the road to redemption requires precise navigational skills. He was not about to show them the way through, he was about to set England's course to an improbable series-winning 3-0 lead.

He was merciless in the first 10 overs of England's innings. But this was not improvised, bottom-handed, cross-batted butchery. It was extremely high-class assured orthodox batsmanship in which the movement of the feet and the quality of the timing were key elements.

In short, it was a pleasure to behold. Bell hit 11 fours and a six, taking full advantage of the power plays. His 50 came in a mere 36 balls and there seemed reason to suppose that he could continue in this vein. Dead sheep have their day. But then he changed. The next 23 runs required 41 balls. It was as if he decided that he had taken the venom from the tourists and now "Mr Diffident" was tapping him on the shoulder again.

Bell's figures in one-day cricket, as in Test cricket, tell only half the story. He has an average of 36, on the lower side of respectable. But this was his first half-century in 11 innings and only his second in 23. Not good enough. Not by half.

He should have made his second one-day hundred and perhaps the change in gears did for him as much as Johann Botha's regulation off-spin. England had the flier they craved, however, and for the suddenly beleaguered tourists there could be no return. They want home and they want it urgently.

It has been a long three years for Bell since he was gonged up, so to speak, as 12 of them were when England regained the Ashes. In that contest he was offered a leading role, but was never much more than a supporting actor.

Since then, if at long intervals, many corners have been turned only to find another brick wall to run in to on the other side. If only yesterday's endeavours might lead to the sunlit uplands, England would have a hero all right.

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