Ian Bell has batted so beautifully for England in the current series it is scarcely credible to think he might have not played in the last two Tests had Andrew Flintoff's ankle not let him down.
Bell, left out of the early-summer series against Sri Lanka, did all that was asked when he was recalled for the opener against Pakistan at Lord's, scoring an unbeaten first-innings hundred, yet Flintoff, apparently recovered, had only to deliver final proof of his wellbeing over four days for Lancashire the following week and the Warwickshire batsman's attempt to restore momentum to his international career would probably have been stalled.
Flintoff's fitness test, of course, did not produce the desired outcome, Bell retained his place and has now become one of only 10 England players to register centuries in three consecutive Tests, the most recent being Graham Gooch, who achieved that sequence against New Zealand and India in the summer of 1990. The last Englishman to score hundreds in four Tests in a row was Ken Barrington, 39 years ago.
Bell's 119 here, in his 17th Test, lacked the fluency of his unbeaten 106 at Old Trafford, which was an aesthetically wonderful innings of genuine class. At times here he was scratchy against the wrist spin of Danish Kaneria and he was rattled more than a couple of times by Umar Gul, whose spell with the second new ball was as good as any from this makeshift Pakistan attack, although that is not saying much.
Yet there were enough splendidly timed strokes, enough evidence of growing authority in the construction of his innings to identify it as that of a batsman who is proving that all the high expectation that has accompanied him has been justified. He is beginning to hint at fulfilment of the promise that led him to be seconded to an England tour as a 19-year-old, after a mere 13 first-class games.
Proclaimed in the infancy of his career as England's finest prospect since Michael Atherton, Bell has spent much of his cricketing life being told that a place in the national side was practically his birthright. Once it was decided, in the late summer of 2004, that the moment had come for his talents to be properly unleashed, the assumption was that he was there for the long haul, unencumbered by any fear of failure.
It is something of a paradox, then, that his flowering has come at the moment of lowest security in his England career, a point he acknowledged last night.
"It helped missing Sri Lanka," he said. "I went away and did a lot of thinking. I believe I came back tougher, with a better body language, more determined not to give my wicket away and to give it my best shot.
"I found the key is not to look too far ahead - to take it one game at a time, which was probably all I had when I played at Lord's.
"I've had a few ups and downs over the past year, which made me all the more determined. As a young batter you go through periods where you do well and not so well. But after a while you want to stay in the side and be more consistent. That's what I'm after this time and so far I've achieved it.
"I not sure I'm in the best form of my life, but I'm feeling pretty good. My game is working the way I want it and it's up to me to cash in, keep scoring the runs and not give my wicket away easily."
He is flourishing, moreover, despite a move down the batting order from three to six, reasoning that his desire for a place in the side demanded that he adapt. "Batting at number six is a little different," he said. "There's more time before you bat and you not sure when you're going to get involved. But I've tried to approach it in the same way as batting number three and play the same way.
"When you are out of the side, any chance to play for England, no matter where you bat, is all that matters. I was desperate to get back and show people that I could still play at this level, desperate for every chance before Fred [Flintoff] gets fit, to make sure the selectors have to put me back in the squad."Reuse content